Wastewater: Nature's Power Drink?
Written by: Roy Marler
Illustrated by: Dr. Biology

show/hide words to know

Ecosystem: a group of different plants and animals that live together and are dependent on the area in which they live.

Invertebrates: animals that do not have a backbone... more

Riparian: the plants and animals found along the edges of rivers.

Species diversity: the number of different types of plants and/or animals found in an area.

Wastewater (effluent): treated water that is released from a city's Wastewater Treatment Plant... more

Have you ever wondered how some rivers just suddenly appear? Within Arizona, several cities now release wastewater into riverbeds, essentially creating "new" rivers. Rivers such as the Salt River from Phoenix, the Santa Cruz River downstream from Nogales and Tucson, and the Agua Fria River downstream from Prescott Valley all receive wastewater. Is wastewater different from water found in naturally occurring rivers, such as the Verde River?

Is this wastewater good or bad for the invertebrates, plants, and animals that live along these rivers? A study is now being conducted to try to answer these questions. To answer this ecosystem size question, we must first study smaller parts within the ecosystem.

Salt river

During the dry, hot summer in the Sonoran desert, some rivers would almost dry up without wastewater. Image of the Salt River by Nicholas Hartmann.

One part we are looking at is water chemistry to determine if there is a difference between wastewater and water from natural rivers. We are looking at the plants and animals living within the river to see if they are different. We are also determining if the water in the riverbed is moving into the ground where it can influence groundwater chemistry and plants living along the river.

Next we are studying the trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses growing along the river to see if they are growing differently because of the wastewater. We also want to know if wastewater rivers have plants that are different from what we find along natural rivers. Finally, we are looking at the birds and invertebrates found with the plants along the river to see if they are changing because of the wastewater.

Once we have studied all these different parts, then we will combine them together to see if the ecosystems are different along wastewater rivers compared to natural rivers. This study will take several years to complete, but below is a brief introduction to some of the things we have found so far.

arrow Wastewater and Natural Water Basic Chemistry

arrow Basic Measurements (basal area and density) of woody plants

arrow Growth Rates of Selected Trees

arrow Survey of Birds

arrow Conclusions

Quiz yourself on the information you just read in this article!

Here are some other places to read and learn about wastewater and ecology.

On the Web:

There are hundreds of sites on the web, but their web addresses often change. It is best to look for them using a search engine like Google or HOTBOT using the key words life wastewater and ecology.

Additional images via Wikimedia Commons. Runoff in Wirral by Rept0n1x.

View Citation

You may need to edit author's name to meet the style formats, which are in most cases "Last name, First name."

Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Wastewater: Nature's Power Drink?
  • Author(s): Roy Marler
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: October 8, 2009
  • Date accessed:
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/wastewater-natures-power-drink

APA Style

Roy Marler. (2009, October 08). Wastewater: Nature's Power Drink? . ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/wastewater-natures-power-drink

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Roy Marler. "Wastewater: Nature's Power Drink? ". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 08 October, 2009. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/wastewater-natures-power-drink

MLA 2017 Style

Roy Marler. "Wastewater: Nature's Power Drink? ". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 08 Oct 2009. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. . https://askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/wastewater-natures-power-drink

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Many rivers in urban areas are fed by wastewater runoff, like this wastewater stream in Wirral, England.

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