In this work, we summarize our current understanding of the function of riparian zones and describe an investigation of changes in the production per unit nitrogen (N) taken up, or nitrogen-use efficiency (NUE) and resource allocation of a riparian shrub in response to changes in N availability. Empirical work included measuring leaf %N and root-to-shoot ratios (R:S) of individual riparian shrubs (Baccharis salicifolia, or seepwillow) growing at a range of N availabilities in the field and growing in fertilized and unfertilized plots in a field fertilization experiment. In both observational and experimental work, N availability was related positively to %N of plant tissues and negatively to R:S. We used a simulation model to investigate feedbacks between seepwillow responses to and effects on N availability. In the model, plasticity in resource allocation and NUE in response to changes in N led to lower productivity at low N supply and higher productivity and lower retention at high N supply than was observed in plants constrained to a constant %N and R:S. Furthermore, uptake became relatively more important as a retention mechanism when plants responded to high N supply. These feedbacks could have significant effects on N retention by riparian zones in watersheds receiving large fertilizer inputs of N or on ecosystems exposed to high rates of atmospheric N deposition.