We present an integrated methodology for the optimal management of nitrate contamination of ground water combining environmental assessment and economic cost evaluation through multi-criteria decision analysis. The proposed methodology incorporates an integrated physical modeling framework accounting for on-ground nitrogen loading and losses, soil nitrogen dynamics, and fate and transport of nitrate in ground water to compute the sustainable on-ground nitrogen loading such that the maximum contaminant level is not violated. A number of protection alternatives to stipulate the predicted sustainable on-ground nitrogen loading are evaluated using the decision analysis that employs the importance order of criteria approach for ranking and selection of the protection alternatives. The methodology was successfully demonstrated for the Sumas-Blaine aquifer in Washington State. The results showed the importance of using this integrated approach which predicts the sustainable on-ground nitrogen loadings and provides an insight into the economic consequences generated in satisfying the environmental constraints. The results also show that the proposed decision analysis framework, within certain limitations, is effective when selecting alternatives with competing demands. (c) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.