Study measures effects of treated wastewater on ecosystems

Oct. 3, 2023
Even wastewater that is properly treated and discharged can affect ecosystem function — and new research measures these effects.

New research underscores the need to intensify efforts in the treatment of polluted water in order to preserve aquatic diversity in Spain, according to a press release from the University of the Basque Country.

Despite the fact that the effluent discharged through wastewater treatment plants is treated, what is left behind may still contain a complex cocktail of pollutants, nutrients and pathogens, whose environmental effects, hidden by other factors, may pass unnoticed. More advanced WWTPs apply additional treatments to reduce nutrients, organic matter and metals in the sewage, and these wastewater discharges, despite being highly diluted, can exert minor effects if they continue for a long time.

“To study the effects of these plants properly, we designed an innovative experiment that allowed us to handle the entire ecosystem over several years,” said Ioar de Guzmán, first author in the study. “Firstly, several variables were measured for one year in two selected reaches in an unpolluted stream, to see the difference between these reaches. That way we knew how these stream variables changed depending on time and place.”

After that, properly treated, highly diluted water from a wastewater treatment plant was diverted to one of these downstream reaches. The team took measurements over the period of another year in both reaches. Their findings helped to show the changes had been brought about by these discharges on the diversity of the stream, on the trophic network,  and on the functioning of the ecosystem.

The study found that treated wastewater can exert significant effects on the ecosystem and affect the structure and functioning of stream communities even if it is highly diluted when discharged.

Although the toxicity of the effluent was found to be low, “in general, invertebrate diversity was reduced and communities became more heterogeneous; the amount of algae and herbivory (or tendency to feed on plants) increased,” said de Guzmán.

Certain nutrients that can help boost algae and organic matter enter the stream, but the pollutants can also lead to the disappearance of sensitive invertebrates and their replacement by more resistant ones.

“We believe that by adhering to the limits stipulated by the legislation, the problems are reduced, but impacts are nevertheless generated; we must bear in mind that for an optimal conservation of the trophic networks of the streams, these treatments have to be even more stringent,” said de Guzmán.

Photo 26492457 © Lftan |
Image courtesy Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ).