Selecting plant species to optimize wastewater treatment in constructed wetlands

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture


Constructed wetlands are used around the world for treating domestic, agricultural, and industrial wastewater, stormwater runoff, and acid mine drainage. Plants may affect efficacy of wastewater treatment through their influence on microbial activity by creating attachment sites and releasing carbon exudates and oxygen. My research investigated seasonal plant effects on wastewater treatment by monitoring water chemistry in model subsurface wetlands planted with monocultures of 19 plant species and unplanted controls. Chemical oxygen demand (COD) removal, an indicator of water quality, declined during colder temperatures in the unplanted control, likely caused by a decrease in microbial activity. In contrast, wetlands with most plant species had constant COD removal across seasons. Redox potential and sulfate concentrations were measured as indirect measurements of the oxygenation of the wastewater. Wetlands that had a decline in COD removal during cold temperatures had constant low redox potential and sulfate concentrations throughout the seasons. Wetlands with high COD removal across seasons had elevated redox potentials and sulfate concentrations during the winter, indicating elevated oxygen availability, which may offset the negative temperature effect on microbial processes. I measured root oxygen loss (ROL) in the summer and the winter to determine whether oxygen release was sufficient to influence wastewater treatment and cause seasonal and species-specific effects on water chemistry. COD removal and ROL were positively correlated at 4°C but not at 24°C; however, the amount of root oxygen release only accounted for a portion of the required oxygen to facilitate plant's influence on COD removal. Flooding tolerance was quantified for each species by comparing plants' biomass between flooded and drained conditions. Plants' botanical grouping, Wetland Indicator Status, and flooding tolerance were compared to plants' influences on wastewater treatment to determine whether easily measured plant traits can be used to identify plants that will optimize wastewater treatment. All the sedges and rushes, obligate wetlands species, and 8 of 9 flood-tolerant plants had greater COD removal than the control at 4°C, the coldest temperature incubation. These results can be applied for wetland design by selecting plant species to optimize wastewater treatment, especially in cold climates.




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