The importance of sewage effluent discharge in the export of dissolved organic carbon from U.K. rivers

Fred Worrall*, Nicholas J.K. Howden, Tim P. Burt, Rebecca Bartlett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
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The flux of fluvial carbon from the terrestrial biosphere to the world's oceans is known to be an important component of the global carbon cycle, but within this pathway, the flux and return of carbon to the river network via sewage effluent has not been quantified. In this study, monitoring data from 2000 to 2016 for the dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentration, biochemical oxygen demand, and chemical oxygen demand of the final effluent of sewage treatment works from across England were examined to assess the amount of DOC contributing to national-scale fluvial fluxes of carbon. The study shows that the median concentration of DOC in final effluent was 9.4 compared with 4.8 mg C/L for all surface waters for the United Kingdom over the study period and that the DOC in final effluent significantly declined over the study period from 11.0 to 6.4 mg C/L. Rivers receiving sewage effluent showed a significant, on average 19%, increase in DOC concentration downstream of sewage discharges. At the scale of the United Kingdom, the flux of DOC in final effluent was 31 ktonnes C/year with a per capita export of 0.55 kg C/year and compared with an average annual flux of DOC from the United Kingdom of 859 ktonnes C/year, that is, only 3.6% of national-scale flux. The lability of this DOC was limited, with only 7.4% loss of final effluent DOC concentration over in-stream residence times of up to 5 days. The direct decline in DOC concentration from sewage treatment works was not large enough on its own to explain the declines observed in DOC concentration in U.K. rivers at their tidal limit.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1851-1864
Number of pages14
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number13
Early online date15 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2019


  • carbon budget
  • greenhouse gases
  • water treatment

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