The objective of this paper was to spatially quantify diffuse pollution sources and estimate the potential efficiency of applying riparian buffer zones as a conservation practice for mitigating chemical pollutant losses. This study was conducted using a semi-distributed Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) model that underwent extensive calibration and validation in the Sulejów Reservoir catchment (SRC), which occupies 4900 km2 in central Poland. The model was calibrated and validated against daily discharges (10 gauges), NO3-N and TP loads (7 gauges). Overall, the model generally performed well during the calibration period but not during the validation period for simulating discharge and loading of NO3-N and TP. Diffuse agricultural sources appeared to be the main contributors to the elevated NO3-N and TP loads in the streams. The existing, default representation of buffer zones in SWAT uses a VFS sub-model that only affects the contaminants present in surface runoff. The results of an extensive monitoring program carried out in 2011–2013 in the SRC suggest that buffer zones are highly efficient for reducing NO3-N and TP concentrations in shallow groundwater. On average, reductions of 56% and 76% were observed, respectively. An improved simulation of buffer zones in SWAT was achieved through empirical upscaling of the measurement results. The mean values of the sub-basin level reductions are 0.16 kg NO3/ha (5.9%) and 0.03 kg TP/ha (19.4%). The buffer zones simulated using this approach contributed 24% for NO3-N and 54% for TP to the total achieved mean reduction at the sub-basin level. This result suggests that additional measures are needed to achieve acceptable water quality status in all water bodies of the SRC, despite the fact that the buffer zones have a high potential for reducing contaminant emissions.
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