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The discharge of excess nitrogen to streams and rivers poses an existential threat to both humans and ecosystems. A seminal study of headwater streams across the United States concluded that in-stream removal of nitrate is controlled primarily by stream chemistry and biology. Reanalysis of these data reveals that stream turbulence (in particular, turbulent mass transfer across the concentration boundary layer) imposes a previously unrecognized upper limit on the rate at which nitrate is removed from streams. The upper limit closely approximates measured nitrate removal rates in streams with low concentrations of this pollutant, a discovery that should inform stream restoration designs and efforts to assess the effects of nitrogen pollution on receiving water quality and the global nitrogen cycle.