An Introduction to Wastewater Treatment in Wetlands

Originally published by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Florida

Wastewater treatment in wetlands can be highly effective, [including for leachates]. Wetlands are commonly known as biological filters, providing protection for water resources such as lakes, estuaries and ground water. Although wetlands have always served this purpose, research and development of wetland treatment technology is a relatively recent phenomenon. Studies of the feasibility of using wetlands for wastewater treatment were initiated during the early 1950s in Germany. In the United States, wastewater-to-wetlands research began in the late 1960s, and increased dramatically in scope during the 1970s. As a result, the use of wetlands for water and wastewater treatment in wetlands has gained considerable popularity worldwide. Currently, an estimated one thousand wetland treatment systems, both natural and constructed, are in use in North America.

The goal of wastewater treatment is the removal of contaminants from the water in order to decrease the possibility of detrimental impacts on humans and the rest of the ecosystem. The term “contaminant” is used here to refer to an undesirable constituent in the water or wastewater that may directly or indirectly affect human or environmental health. Many contaminants, including a wide variety of organic compounds and metals, are toxic to humans and other organisms. Other types of contaminants are not toxic, but nevertheless pose an indirect threat to our well-being. For example, loading of nutrients (e.g., nitrogen and phosphorus) to waterways can result in excessive growth of algae and unwanted vegetation, diminishing the recreational, economic and aesthetic values of lakes, bays and streams.

Wetlands have proved to be well-suited for treating municipal wastewater (sewage), agricultural wastewater and runoff, industrial wastewater, and stormwater runoff from urban, suburban and rural areas. Municipal wastewater originates primarily from residential and commercial sources. Wetland treatment systems for municipal wastewater vary greatly in size and scope, from single-residence backyard wetlands to regional-scale systems such as the 1200- acre (480-ha) Iron Bridge treatment wetland in central Florida. Agricultural wastewater may include runoff from crop lands and pastures, milking or washing barns and feedlots. Among the types of industrial wastewater that are amenable to treatment in wetlands are those associated with pulp and paper manufacturing, food processing, slaughtering and rendering, chemical manufacturing, petroleum refining, and landfill leachates.

A number of physical, chemical and biological processes operate concurrently in constructed and natural wetlands to provide contaminant removal ( Figure 1 ). Knowledge of the basic concepts of these processes is extremely helpful for assessing the potential applications, benefits and limitations of wetland treatment systems.

contaminant removal in wetlandsFigure 1. Summary of the major physical, chemical and biological processes controlling contaminant removal in wetlands.

Contaminant Removal Processes

Physical Removal Processes

Wetlands are capable of providing highly efficient physical removal of contaminants associated with particulate matter in the water or waste stream when there is wastewater treatment in wetlands. Surface water typically moves very slowly through wetlands due to the characteristic broad sheet flow and the resistance provided by rooted and floating plants. Sedimentation of suspended solids is promoted by the low flow velocity and by the fact that the flow is often laminar (not turbulent) in wetlands. Mats of floating plants in wetlands may serve, to a limited extent, as sediment traps, but their primary role in suspended solids removal is to limit resuspension of settled particulate matter.

Efficiency of suspended solids removal is proportional to the particle settling velocity and the length of the wetland. For practical purposes, sedimentation is usually considered an irreversible process, resulting in accumulation of solids and associated contaminants on the wetland soil surface. However, resuspension of sediment may result in the export of suspended solids and yield a somewhat lower removal efficiency. Some resuspension may occur during periods of high flow velocity in the wetland. More commonly, resuspension results from wind-driven turbulence, bioturbation (disturbance by animals and humans) and gas lift. Gas lift results from production of gases such as oxygen, from photosynthesis in the water, and methane and carbon dioxide, produced by microorganisms in the sediment during decomposition of organic matter. Problems with eventual buildup of sediment to detrimental levels may need to be addressed over the long term.

Biological Removal Processes

Biological removal is perhaps the most important pathway for contaminant removal in wetlands. Probably the most widely recognized biological process for contaminant removal in wetlands is plant uptake. Contaminants that are also forms of essential plant nutrients, such as nitrate, ammonium and phosphate, are readily taken up by wetland plants during wastewater treatment in wetlands. However, many wetland plant species are also capable of uptake, and even significant accumulation of, certain toxic metals such as cadmium and lead. The rate of contaminant removal by plants varies widely, depending on plant growth rate and concentration of the contaminant in plant tissue.

Woody plants, i.e., trees and shrubs, provide relatively long-term storage of contaminants, compared with herbaceous plants. However, contaminant uptake rate per unit area of land is often much higher for herbaceous plants, or macrophytes, such as cattail. Algae may also provide a significant amount of nutrient uptake, but are more susceptible to the toxic effects of heavy metals. Storage of nutrients in algae is relatively short-term, due to the rapid turnover (short life cycle) of algae. Bacteria and other microorganisms in the soil also provide uptake and short-term storage of nutrients, and some other contaminants.

In wetlands, as in many terrestrial ecosystems, dead plant material, known as detritus or litter, accumulates at the soil surface. Some of the nutrients, metals or other elements previously removed from the water by plant uptake are lost from the plant detritus by leaching and decomposition, and recycled back into the water and soil. Leaching of water-soluble contaminants may occur rapidly upon the death of the plant or plant tissue, while a more gradual loss of contaminants occurs during decomposition of detritus by bacteria and other organisms. Recycled contaminants may be flushed from the wetland in the surface water, or may be removed again from the water by biological uptake or other means.

In most wetlands, there is a significant accumulation of plant detritus, because the rate of decomposition is substantially decreased under the anaerobic (oxygen-depleted) conditions that generally prevail in wetland soil. If, over an extended period of time, the rate of organic matter decomposition is lower than the rate of organic matter deposition on the soil, formation of peat occurs in the wetland. In this manner, some of the contaminants originally taken up by plants can be trapped and stored as peat. Peat may accumulate to great depths in wetlands, and can provide long-term storage for contaminants. However, peat is also susceptible to decomposition if the wetland is drained or otherwise dries up. When that happens, the contaminants incorporated in the peat may be released and either recycled or flushed from the wetland.

Although microorganisms may provide a measurable amount of contaminant uptake and storage, it is their metabolic processes that play the most significant role in removal of organic compounds. Microbial decomposers, primarily soil bacteria, utilize the carbon (C) in organic matter as a source of energy, converting it to carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4) gases. This provides an important biological mechanism for removal of a wide variety of organic compounds, including those found in municipal wastewater, food processing wastewater, pesticides and petroleum products. The efficiency and rate of organic C degradation by microorganisms is highly variable for different types of organic compounds.

Microbial metabolism also affords removal of inorganic nitrogen, i.e., nitrate and ammonium, in wetlands. Specialized bacteria (Pseudomonas spp.) metabolically transform nitrate into nitrogen gas (N2), a process known as denitrification. The N2 is subsequently lost to the atmosphere, thus denitrification represents a means for permanent removal, rather than storage, of nitrogen by the wetland. Removal of ammonium in wetlands can occur as a result of the sequential processes of nitrification and denitrification. Nitrification, the microbial (Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter spp.) transformation of ammonium to nitrate, takes place in aerobic (oxygen-rich) regions of the soil and surface water. The newly-formed nitrate can then undergo denitrification when it diffuses into the deeper, anaerobic regions of the soil. The coupled processes of nitrification and denitrification are universally important in the cycling and bioavailability of nitrogen in wetland and upland soils.

Chemical Removal Processes

In addition to physical and biological processes, a wide range of chemical processes are involved in the removal of contaminants in wetlands. The most important chemical removal process in wetland soils is sorption, which results in short-term retention or long-term immobilization of several classes of contaminants. Sorption is a broadly defined term for the transfer of ions (molecules with positive or negative charges) from the solution phase (water) to the solid phase (soil). Sorption actually describes a group of processes, which includes adsorption and precipitation reactions.
Adsorption refers to the attachment of ions to soil particles, by either cation exchange or chemisorption. Cation exchange involves the physical attachment of cations (positively charged ions) to the surfaces of clay and organic matter particles in the soil. This a much weaker attachment than chemical bonding, therefore the cations are not permanently immobilized in the soil. Many constituents of wastewater and runoff exist as cations, including ammonium (NH4+) and most trace metals, such as copper (Cu2+). The capacity of soils for retention of cations, expressed as cation exchange capacity (CEC), generally increases with increasing clay and organic matter content. Chemisorption represents a stronger and more permanent form of bonding than cation exchange. A number of metals and organic compounds can be immobilized in the soil via chemisorption with clays, iron (Fe) and aluminum (Al) oxides, and organic matter. Phosphate can also bind with clays and Fe and Al oxides through chemisorption.

Phosphate can also precipitate with iron and aluminum oxides to form new mineral compounds (Fe- and Al-phosphates), which are potentially very stable in the soil, affording long- term storage of phosphorus. In the Everglades, and other wetlands that contain high concentrations of calcium (Ca), phosphate can precipitate to form Ca-phosphate minerals, which are also stable over a long period of time. Another important precipitation reaction that occurs in wetland soils is the formation of metal sulfides. Such compounds are highly insoluble and represent an effective means for immobilizing many toxic metals in wetlands.

Volatilization, which involves diffusion of a dissolved compound from the water into the atmosphere, is another potential means of contaminant removal in wetlands. Ammonia (NH3) volatilization can result in significant removal of nitrogen, if the pH of the water is high (greater than about 8.5). However, at a pH lower than about 8.5, ammonia nitrogen exists almost exclusively in the ionized form (ammonium, NH4+), which is not volatile. Many types of organic compounds are volatile, and are readily lost to the atmosphere from wetlands and other surface waters. Although volatilization can effectively remove certain contaminants from the water, it may prove to be undesirable in some instances, due to the potential for polluting the air with the same contaminants.


A wide range of physical, chemical and biological processes contribute to removal of contaminants from water in wetlands. These processes include sedimentation, plant uptake, chemical adsorption and precipitation, and volatilization. Removal of contaminants may be accomplished through storage in the wetland soil and vegetation, or through losses to the atmosphere.
An understanding of the basic physical, chemical and biological processes controlling contaminant removal in wetlands will substantially increase the probability of success of treatment wetland applications. Furthermore, a working knowledge of biogeochemical cycling, the movement and transformation of nutrients, metals and organic compounds among the biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) components of the ecosystem, can provide valuable insight into overall wetland function and structure. This level of understanding is useful for evaluating the contaminant-removal performance of constructed wetlands and for assessing the functional integrity of human-impacted, restored and mitigation wetlands. More detailed discussions of wetland biogeochemistry and contaminant removal in treatment wetlands can be found in the references listed below.


Kadlec, R.H., and R.L. Knight. 1996. Treatment wetlands. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL.
Mitsch, W.J., and J.G. Gosselink. 1993. Wetlands. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.

Reddy, K. R., and E. M. D’Angelo. 1994. Soil processes regulating water quality in wetlands. p. 309-324. In Mitsch, W. J. (ed.) Global wetlands: old world and new. Elsevier Science, Amsterdam.


1. This document is a reproduction of SL155, a fact sheet of the Soil and Water Science Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Published: May 1999. Please visit the EDIS Web site at
2. About the author : William F. DeBusk, former assistant professor and extension specialist, Soil and Water Science Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, 32611-0510.

Originally published by U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A. & M. University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Larry Arrington, Dean, and reproduced here under licence for educational purposes (see copyright information below).

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