Intensive agricultural and industrial activities are often considered major sources of water contamination. Currently, riparian vegetation (RV) is increasingly being promoted as a solution to balance the potentially adverse effects that agriculture may have on water quality. Nonetheless, existing RV is often overlook in recent modelling efforts, failing to capture the current amount of ecosystem services provide. Here, we used the Soil and Water Assessment Tool ecohydrological model to simulate the influence of ground-true RV on i) nutrient (nitrate and total phosphorus) and sediment exports from agricultural areas and ii) its effect for in-stream concentrations. These results are further compared against a set of hypothetical scenarios of different RV widths and different land-uses. Our results point to a great relevance of existing RV in controlling in-stream concentration of sediments and nutrients where pressure from agriculture is highest, preventing them to surpass limits set in the EU Water Framework Directive. On the other hand, in areas with industry discharges, the role of RV is limited and model results suggest that restoring RV would have limited impacts. We illustrate how existing RV may already provide strong but not acknowledged water quality regulation services, how these services can differ substantially between nearby streams, and that effective strategies to improve water quality using RV must acknowledge existing patterns of vegetation, land use and contamination sources.