Release of treated effluent into streams: A global review of ecological impacts with a consideration of its potential use for environmental flows

Hamdhani Hamdhani, Drew E. Eppehimer, Michael T. Bogan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

84 Scopus citations


Worldwide, the addition of treated wastewater (i.e. effluent) to streams is becoming more common as urban populations grow and developing countries increase their use of wastewater treatment plants. Release of treated effluent can impair water quality and ecological communities, but also could help restore flow and maintain aquatic habitat in water-stressed regions. To assess this range of potential outcomes, we conducted a global review of studies from effluent-fed streams to examine the impacts of effluent on water quality and aquatic and riparian biota. We identified 147 quantitative studies of effluent-fed streams, most of which were from the U.S.A. and Europe. Over 85% of the studies identified water quality as a primary study focus, including basic physical and chemical parameters, as well as trace organic contaminants. Nearly 60% of the studies had at least some focus on aquatic or riparian biota, primarily fish, aquatic invertebrates, and basal resources (e.g. algae). Effluent inputs generally impaired water quality near discharge points, mainly through increased water temperature, nutrients, and concentrations of trace organic contaminants, but also via decreased dissolved oxygen levels. The majority of ecological studies found that basal resources, aquatic invertebrates, and fish were negatively affected in a variety of ways (e.g. biodiversity losses, replacement of sensitive with tolerant species). However, several studies showed the importance of effluent in providing environmental flows to streams that had been dewatered by anthropogenic water withdrawals, especially in semi-arid and arid regions. Knowledge gaps identified include the abiotic impacts of effluent, such as changes in channel morphology and hydrology (e.g. how nutrient-rich and warmer effluent affects infiltration rates or interactions with groundwater), the effects of effluent on plants and vertebrates (e.g. amphibians, birds), and the impact of effluent-induced perennialisation on naturally intermittent or ephemeral streams. Although effluent-fed streams often exhibit signs of ecological impairment, there is great potential for these systems to serve as refuges of aquatic biodiversity and corridors of ecological connectivity when wastewater treatment standards are high, especially in semi-arid and arid regions where natural streams have been dewatered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1657-1670
Number of pages14
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • aquatic invertebrates
  • contaminants
  • fish
  • primary producers
  • stream ecology
  • urban ecology
  • wastewater treatment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science


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