Secondary drainage canals have the potential to effectively mitigate excess nitrogen loads from diffuse and point sources. In vegetated (Phragmites australis and Typha latifolia) and in unvegetated canals subjected to diffuse and point pollution, nitrogen removal was evaluated by means of simple in–out mass balance and potential uptake by macrophytes was estimated from biomass data. Results suggest an elevated control of nitrogen in vegetated ditches receiving point source of pollution (average abatement of 50% of the total N load per linear km), whereas removal processes are much less effective in unvegetated ditches. The comparison between net abatement and plant uptake, highlights the presence of other unaccounted for processes responsible for a relevant percentage of total N removal. Overall, results from this study suggest the importance of actions aiming at the appropriate management of emergent vegetation, in order to improve its direct and indirect metabolic functions and maximize nitrogen removal in impacted watersheds.