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posted on 17.10.2019 by Soohyun Yang

In urbanized river basins, sanitary wastewater and urban runoff (non-sanitary water) from urban agglomerations drain to complex engineered networks, are treated at centralized wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) and discharged to river networks. Discharge from multiple WWTPs distributed in urbanized river basins contributes to impairments of river water-quality and aquatic ecosystem integrity. The size and location of WWTPs are determined by spatial patterns of population in urban agglomerations within a river basin. Economic and engineering constraints determine the combination of wastewater treatment technologies used to meet required environmental regulatory standards for treated wastewater discharged to river networks. Thus, it is necessary to understand the natural-human-engineered networks as coupled systems, to characterize their interrelations, and to understand emergent spatiotemporal patterns and scaling of geochemical and ecological responses.

My PhD research involved data-model synthesis, using publicly available data and application of well-established network analysis/modeling synthesis approaches. I present the scope and specific subjects of my PhD project by employing the Drivers-Pressures-Status-Impacts-Responses (DPSIR) framework. The defined research scope is organized as three main themes: (1) River network and urban drainage networks (Foundation-Pathway of Pressures); (2) River network, human population, and WWTPs (Foundation-Drivers-Pathway of Pressures); and (3) Nutrient loads and their impacts at reach- and basin-scales (Pressures-Impacts).

Three inter-related research topics are: (1) the similarities and differences in scaling and topology of engineered urban drainage networks (UDNs) in two cities, and UDN evolution over decades; (2) the scaling and spatial organization of three attributes: human population (POP), population equivalents (PE; the aggregated population served by each WWTP), and the number/sizes of WWTPs using geo-referenced data for WWTPs in three large urbanized basins in Germany; and (3) the scaling of nutrient loads (P and N) discharged from ~845 WWTPs (five class-sizes) in urbanized Weser River basin in Germany, and likely water-quality impacts from point- and diffuse- nutrient sources.

I investigate the UDN scaling using two power-law scaling characteristics widely employed for river networks: (1) Hack’s law (length-area power-law relationship), and (2) exceedance probability distribution of upstream contributing area. For the smallest UDNs, length-area scales linearly, but power-law scaling emerges as the UDNs grow. While area-exceedance plots for river networks are abruptly truncated, those for UDNs display exponential tempering. The tempering parameter decreases as the UDNs grow, implying that the distribution evolves in time to resemble those for river networks. However, the power-law exponent for mature UDNs tends to be larger than the range reported for river networks. Differences in generative processes and engineering design constraints contribute to observed differences in the evolution of UDNs and river networks, including subnet heterogeneity and non-random branching.

In this study, I also examine the spatial patterns of POP, PE, and WWTPs from two perspectives by employing fractal river networks as structural platforms: spatial hierarchy (stream order) and patterns along longitudinal flow paths (width function). I propose three dimensionless scaling indices to quantify: (1) human settlement preferences by stream order, (2) non-sanitary flow contribution to total wastewater treated at WWTPs, and (3) degree of centralization in WWTPs locations. I select as case studies three large urbanized river basins (Weser, Elbe, and Rhine), home to about 70% of the population in Germany. Across the three river basins, the study shows scale-invariant distributions for each of the three attributes with stream order, quantified using extended Horton scaling ratios; a weak downstream clustering of POP in the three basins. Variations in PE clustering among different class-sizes of WWTPs reflect the size, number, and locations of urban agglomerations in these catchments.

WWTP effluents have impacts on hydrologic attributes and water quality of receiving river bodies at the reach- and basin-scales. I analyze the adverse impacts of WWTP discharges for the Weser River basin (Germany), at two steady river discharge conditions (median flow; low-flow). This study shows that significant variability in treated wastewater discharge within and among different five class-sizes WWTPs, and variability of river discharge within the stream order <3, contribute to large variations in capacity to dilute WWTP nutrient loads. For the median flow, reach-scale water quality impairment assessed by nutrient concentration is likely at 136 (~16%) locations for P and 15 locations (~2%) for N. About 90% of the impaired locations are the stream order < 3. At basin-scale analysis, considering in stream uptake resulted 225 (~27%) P-impaired streams, which was ~5% reduction from considering only dilution. This result suggests the dominant role of dilution in the Weser River basin. Under the low flow conditions, water quality impaired locations are likely double than the median flow status for the analyses. This study for the Weser River basin reveals that the role of in-stream uptake diminishes along the flow paths, while dilution in larger streams (4≤ stream order ≤7) minimizes the impact of WWTP loads.

Furthermore, I investigate eutrophication risk from spatially heterogeneous diffuse- and point-source P loads in the Weser River basin, using the basin-scale network model with in-stream losses (nutrient uptake).Considering long-term shifts in P loads for three representative periods, my analysis shows that P loads from diffuse-sources, mainly from agricultural areas, played a dominant role in contributing to eutrophication risk since 2000s, because of ~87% reduction of point-source P loads compared to 1980s through the implementation of the EU WFD. Nevertheless, point-sources discharged to smaller streams (stream order < 3) pose amplification effects on water quality impairment, consistent with the reach-scale analyses only for WWTPs effluents. Comparing to the long-term water quality monitoring data, I demonstrate that point-sources loads are the primary contributors for eutrophication in smaller streams, whereas diffuse-source loads mainly from agricultural areas address eutrophication in larger streams. The results are reflective of spatial patterns of WWTPs and land cover in the Weser River basin.

Through data-model synthesis, I identify the characteristics of the coupled natural (rivers) – humans – engineered (urban drainage infrastructure) systems (CNHES), inspired by analogy, coexistence, and causality across the coupled networks in urbanized river basins. The quantitative measures and the basin-scale network model presented in my PhD project could extend to other large urbanized basins for better understanding the spatial distribution patterns of the CNHES and the resultant impacts on river water-quality impairment.


Collaborative Research: RIPS Type 2: Resilience Simulation for Water, Power & Road Network

Directorate for Engineering

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Ross Fellowship awarded through the Graduate School at Purdue

Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ (Germany)


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Civil Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

P. Suresh C. Rao

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Dietrich Borchardt

Additional Committee Member 2

Amisha Shah

Additional Committee Member 3

Antoine Aubeneau

Additional Committee Member 4

Michael Mashtare

Additional Committee Member 5

Enrico Bertuzzo

Additional Committee Member 6

Kyungrock Paik