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Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183

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Grey water footprint assessment at the river basin level: Accounting

method and case study in the Segura River Basin, Spain
Francisco Pellicer-Martínez ∗ , José Miguel Martínez-Paz
Water and Environment Institute, University of Murcia, Edificio D. Campus de Espinardo, 30100 Murcia, Spain

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Measurement and monitoring of the pollution in continental waters is one of the main challenges in
Received 11 May 2015 water resources management as pollution is the principal cause of degradation of aquatic ecosystems,
Received in revised form 13 August 2015 leading to the subsequent reduction of ecosystem services. The grey water footprint (GWF), defined as the
Accepted 19 August 2015
volume of fresh water required to assimilate the load of pollutants discharged into water, is an indicator
Available online 29 September 2015
used to measure the degree of water pollution in a homogeneous unit. The GWF allows examination and
contrast of the impacts of different pollutants located in different geographical areas, although it can also
be used to compare the contamination impact with other types of impacts, such as the water extraction
Grey water footprint
Water resources management
in aquifers. Although the potential and the foundations of the GWF formulation are well developed, the
Decision support system existing methodologies for calculating the GWF are still in an initial stage, which complicates matters
Wastewater treatment when dealing with complex cases due to the newness of this indicator. This paper aims to develop a
Water reuse methodology that is appropriate for the comprehensive evaluation of the GWF at the river basin level.
Segura River Basin The methodology proposed considered the load of pollutants discharged in a basin, simulating the
anthropised water cycle. This simulation, conducted by combining a hydrological model and a decision
support system, enabled the calculation of GWF under present and future scenarios and/or the ex-ante
analysis of the impact of different river basin management policies (e.g., wastewater treatment, water
reuse, the joint use of surface and groundwater). Owing to all these advantages, the GWF is a highly useful
indicator within the framework of integrated water resources management. The GWF assessment in the
Segura River Basin (South-eastern Spain) highlighted both the validity and the general applicability of
the methodology. The basin under study is affected by serious pollution issues and is one of the most
complex exploitation systems in Europe. Additionally, fostering of the use of natural water resources,
wastewater treatment actions, water reuse, desalinisation and external transfers are performed in this
basin. The results indicate that the GWF of the Segura River Basin is greater than its renewable water
resources, making it markedly unsustainable in both the short- and medium-term.
© 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction biodiversity and the ability of aquatic ecosystems to provide valu-

able ecosystem services for the population (Carpenter et al., 1999).
Increasing pollution of the world’s inland water, at both the sur- Pollution can make water bodies unusable for domestic, industrial
face and groundwater levels, is one of the main issues to be tackled and irrigation purposes, both at present and in the future. This con-
by water resources management (Bouwer, 2000). An increase in sequence of pollution is especially accentuated in aquifers, where
nutrient loading or in the discharge of organic compounds, pesti- pollutants neither degrade nor are easily removed and hence accu-
cides or heavy metals into water bodies (EC, 2000) has a negative mulate (Dotsika et al., 2011). The problem worsens in areas affected
impact on aquatic ecosystems (Schwarzenbach et al., 2006). One by water scarcity, where there is great pressure on water use and
of these threats to water quality is the eutrophication of sur- pollutants are less diluted due to the reduced streamflows (Liu et al.,
face waters, which leads to the overload of anthropogenic organic 2012).
matter and nutrients in the water (Smith et al., 1999), reducing Most countries1 conduct periodic analyses of the pollutant
concentrations in their water bodies, to aid the elaboration, if

∗ Corresponding author. Tel.: +34 868 887 605. 1

The Water Information System for Europe (WISE
E-mail address: (F. Pellicer-Martínez). includes, among others, three links to essential databases that show the status of
1470-160X/© 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1174 F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183

necessary, of action plans aimed at the reduction of pollution – water cycle, performed by combining a hydrological model and a
if the thresholds set by law are crossed (Sartorius et al., 2011). decision support system (DSS). This technique allowed us to know
Nevertheless, even though there is a wide range of measurements how the different types of pollutant discharge are distributed in
and pollutants considered for the analyses, there are hardly any time and space – and hence to assign a GFW value to every water
sets of homogenous indicators which allow the comparison of the body in the basin, at both the surface and groundwater levels –
pollution impacts across different geographical areas (Jiao et al., and to find out when the major pollution problems arise. Wastew-
2013). The grey water footprint (GWF) is one of these indicators. ater treatment and water reuse were taken into account in the
The GWF is part of the total water footprint, which is composed simulation of the anthropised water cycle, so their impacts on the
of colours in green, blue and grey (Hoekstra and Chapagainl, 2008; reduction of the GWF were also taken into consideration.
Hoekstra et al., 2009). The green water footprint is the volume of The methodology was applied in the Segura River Basin (SRB),
rainwater consumed during the production process (agricultural in South-eastern Spain. The SRB shows serious pollution prob-
and forestry products). The blue water footprint is the volume of lems in its surface and groundwater bodies (Grindlay et al., 2011)
surface and groundwater consumed as a result of the production of and is among the most complex river basins in Europe as far as
a good or service. The GWF is defined as the volume of freshwater management is concerned. The SRB displays some peculiarities:
that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants based on natural its groundwater resources are highly regulated, there is extensive
background concentrations and existing ambient water quality use of groundwater (Martínez-Paz and Perni, 2011) and alternative
standards (Hoekstra et al., 2011). So, the GWF converts the impact resources are employed, such as transfers with two neighbouring
of pollution on water resources into a homogeneous unit: fresh basins (Kroll et al., 2013), reuse of treated wastewater (Rodenas and
water volume (although the GWF is measured in volume, it does not Albacete, 2014) and coastal desalination plants (Lapuente, 2012).
indicate water consumption or water scarcity). Thus, the environ- Therefore, this case study presents nearly all the sources of pollu-
mental impacts produced by different pollutant discharges in water tants and resources that can be found in a river basin; so, beyond its
bodies with distinct natural conditions and under different quality particular interest, this study was intended to set some guidelines
standards can be compared. In contrast, the maximum pollutant for the application of the methodology in further studies.
concentrations allowed and the current levels of contamination
are different in each country and they cannot be compared. 2. Methodology
Additionally, the sustainability of the pollution can be studied
with the GWF indicator. This analysis consists of the determination The methodology proposed (Fig. 1) consists of two consecutive
of whether the water body is able to assimilate the pollution load stages:
received while maintaining the required quality standards. For this
purpose, the GWF in a water body is related to the flow passing
(1) Simulation of the anthropised water cycle for a river basin, using
through it. If the flow is higher than the GWF, the water body can
the spatial and temporal distribution of all the flows.
bear the pollution load that it receives (Hoekstra et al., 2011). On
(2) Assessment of the GWF of the flows related to pollutant dis-
the other hand, if the flow is lower than the GWF, the pollution is
charges. These flows are obtained in the previously mentioned
not sustainable and must be reduced (Liu et al., 2012). Thus, the
simulation. In this stage the type of water body that receives the
GWF has become a sustainability indicator in wastewater manage-
discharge is taken into account, and the effects of wastewater
ment. For this purpose, the GWF must be calculated in the territorial
treatment and reuse are also considered.
unit of the relevant water resources management authority, which
is usually the river basin (EC, 2000), so as to assess the pollution
management of a given territorial unit (Fulton et al., 2014). As a way of introduction, some of the methodological underpin-
Notwithstanding the great potential of the GWF as a sustainabil- nings of both stages are depicted below. They will be dealt with in
ity indicator for water pollution at the territorial level, there are few greater detail in the development of the practical case.
examples of the calculation of the GWF of a river basin (Zeng et al.,
2012; Zhi et al., 2015). The existing practical cases tackle the prob- 2.1. Simulation of the anthropised water cycle
lem only partially (de Miguel et al., 2015): only an overall value is
determined for the whole river basin, disregarding the spatial and The simulation of the anthropised water cycle, which is the first
temporal distribution of the GWF value, which is key to identifying stage of this methodology, provides all the flows that take place in
polluted water bodies and the periods when pollution occurs (Liu a river basin. Among these flows are all the returns of the demands
et al., 2012). The scarcity of developments at the territorial level and the reuse volume, both of which are used in the GWF assess-
is due to several reasons: the relative newness of water footprint ment.
indicators (WF); the lack of a clear application methodology; and This simulation is developed by combining a hydrological model
the large volume of data required for the GWF calculation, which with a decision support system (DSS). The hydrological model
is not available in all basins. determines the water resources of a river basin, establishing the
The primary aim of this work was to develop a methodology for proportions of the rainfall that become surface runoff and aquifer
the comprehensive GWF assessment of a river basin within a frame- recharge – taking into account spatial and temporal distribution
work of integrated water resources management, starting from the (Pellicer-Martínez and Martínez-Paz, 2014). Also, the DSS mod-
standard formulation of the GWF (Hoekstra et al., 2011) in the pol- els simulate the water network of infrastructure and water uses,
lutant discharges delivered into the basin. The pollutant discharges taking as inputs the water resources in the form of time series pro-
were determined by the complete simulation of the anthropised vided by the hydrological model (Bolgov and Levit-Gurevich, 2013).
In the DSS, all water demands are set and the resources are dis-
tributed among them, prioritising according to the type of use and
the topology of the water network. When there are not enough
this issue in the countries of the European Union: (1) The Water Data Centre sup- resources, there will be a deficit in the demands with the lowest
ported by the European Environment Agency (EEA), (2) The Water Statistics website, priority (Paredes-Arquiola et al., 2014).
hosted at Eurostat and (3) The Monitoring of pollutants campaigns for surface water
or within the aquatic environment, conducted by the Institute for Environment
There is a wide range of hydrological models available for the
and Sustainability (JRC – European Commission) in cooperation with a network of evaluation of water resources (Devi et al., 2015). These are water
laboratories. balance models, normally at the monthly scale, which determine
F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183 1175

Return flows from water demands: GWF of a River Basin

• Untreated volume discharged
Hydrological Decision Support • Reused treated volume
• Treated volume discharged
Model System
Modification of the
standard formulation of
the WF calculation
Pollutant concentrations

1. Simulation of the anthropized water cycle

2. Estimation of the GWF of a river basin

Fig. 1. General methodological scheme.

natural streamflows and aquifer recharges, based on climate vari- • cnat is the natural concentration that would occur if there were
ables and basin features (geometry, edaphology, lithology, soil uses, no human influence (mass/volume).
vegetation, etc.). Depending on the quality of the information avail-
able and the objective of the study, they can be applied, from a The GWF in a river basin must take into consideration that:
lower to a greater degree of detail, as lumped (Pellicer-Martínez
and Martínez-Paz, 2015), semi-distributed (Pellicer-Martínez and • Values of natural and maximum acceptable pollutant concentra-
Martínez-Paz, 2014) and distributed models. Among the dis- tions vary across the water bodies in a basin.
tributed models, SWAT (Meaurio et al., 2015) and MIKE-SHE (Larsen • Pollutant discharges carry more than one substance – the GWF
et al., 2014) are very well-known. The results that they provide are value being determined by the critical pollutant (Hoekstra et al.,
series of natural streamflows at key locations of the river network, 2011; Wang and Wu, 2014; Morera et al., 2015), for this substance
such as dams, confluences of rivers and aquifer recharges. requires the largest water volume in order to be assimilated.
The DSSs in water resources management are formulations • The temporary nature of pollutant discharges is due to the
that simulate the integrated system of resources of a river basin monthly simulation of the anthropised water cycle for a period
(Andreu et al., 2009). They simplify the part of the water cycle of time, at least one year.
that is human-controlled, preserving the interrelations between
its main components: rivers, dams, aquifers, intakes, uses, desali- Once the adjustments are implemented, the formulation of the
nation plants, etc. (Pulido et al., 2013). The DSSs forecast how the GWF in a river basin is as follows (Eq. (2)):
river basin management would be affected by possible actions in  Q [j, t] · (c [j, k, t] − c [x, k, t]) 
the basin (Hernandez et al., 2014), which is why DSSs are exten- eff eff nat
GWF[j, x, t] = max[k] (2)
sively used for water planning in most basins where there are data cmax [x, k, t] − cnat [x, k, t]
available. They provide, as results in the form of series, the main where
flows and volumes related to the system of water resources, such
as return flows (pollutant discharges), treated wastewater flows, • GWF[j,x,t]: maximum GWF caused by pollutant k carried by dis-
reused flows, supply of the demands, streamflows and volumes charge j into the water body x in the month t (volume/time). So,
stored in reservoirs. The return flows, treated wastewater flows Eq. (2) is applied for each pollutant in a discharge, and the maxim
and reused flows are directly related to the GWF. value obtained is GWF.
In this work the specific models used were SIMPA, as the hydro- • Qeff [j,t]: discharge flow j in the month t (volume/time).
logical model (Garcia-Barron et al., 2015), and Optiges, as the DDS • ceff [j,k,t]: concentration of pollutant k in discharge j in the month
(Hernandez et al., 2014). Both models have been tested previously t (mass/volume).
in the study area (CHS, 2013a), and their main characteristics are • cmax [x,k,t]: maximum acceptable concentration of pollutant k in
described in the case study. So, it is worth noting that in this stage discharge j in the water body x in the month t (mass/volume).
other types of hydrological models and DSSs can be implemented • cnat [x,k,t]: natural concentration of pollutant k in discharge j in
in different river basins, so as to use the tools that have been tested the water body x in the month t (mass/volume).
in them already.
The urban wastewater treatment is a process that reduces pol-
2.2. Grey water footprint of a river basin lutant loading, and direct reuse of treated urban wastewater for
irrigation (Grindlay et al., 2011) prevents pollutants from reach-
The GWF of a river basin is calculated by adapting the standard ing water bodies. So, in order to incorporate their effects on the
formulation of the GWF of a process (Eq. (1)), defined by Hoekstra GWF, Eq. (2) is modified. For this purpose, the concentration value
et al. (2011), since it is designed to address a punctual discharge of (ceff [j,k,t]) of pollutant k in each discharge j in the month t is replaced
a single substance into a water body. in Eq. (2) by an equivalent concentration (CEq [j,k,t]), which rep-
resents the relationship between the pollutant load that really
L reaches the water bodies and the total flows that return from urban
GWF = (1)
cmax − cnat demands (Fig. 2). To determine the pollutant load, the simulated
urban return flows Qeff [j,t] are divided into treated flows (QT [j,t])
and untreated flows (QNT [j,t]). The treated flows (QT [j,t]) are also
divided, into directly reused flows (QT–R [j,t]) and non-reused flows
• L is the pollutant load (mass). (QT–E [j,t]). The GWF is generated by untreated flows (QNT [j,t]) and
• cmax is the maximum acceptable concentration of the substance by treated flows that are not reused directly (QT–E [j,t]). The data
(mass/volume). flows necessary for this assessment are provided by the simulation
1176 F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183


QT-E[j,t] QT-E[j,t]
Qeff[j,t] (CT[j,k,t]) (CT[j,k,t])

QNT[j,t] QNT[j,t]
(CNT[j,k,t]) (CNT[j,k,t])

Fig. 2. Calculation of the CEq of a pollutant k.

of the anthropised water cycle, and the pollutant concentrations GWF for the whole simulation period, allowing for measurement
are provided by wastewater treatment companies. of the monthly variability of the GWF for the full set of values.
The value of the equivalent concentration (CEq [j,k]) of a pollutant
k in the urban return flow j is calculated by Eq. (3), considering that 
GWF[t] = GWFGround [x, t] + GWFSurface [x, t] (7)
every urban return flow has the pollutant concentrations depicted
x=1 x=1
in Fig. 2:
where M is the number of aquifers considered, and N the number
QT−E [j, t] · CT [j, k, t] + QNT [j, t] · CNT [j, k, t] of river stretches.
CEq [j, k, t] = (3)
Qeff [j, t]
3. Case study
Finally, the GWF for the urban return flows affected by wastew-
ater treatment and reuse is estimated by Eq. (4):
The methodology described in the previous section was applied
  to the Segura River Basin (SRB) with a two-fold purpose. On the
Qeff [j, t] · (CEq [j, k, t] − cnat [x, k, t])
GWF[j, x, t] = max[k] (4) one hand, it was used to calculate the GWF in the SRB, which,
cmax [x, k, t] − cnat [x, k, t]
although it is one of the smallest basins in Europe (20,000 km2 ), has
serious pollution issues and highly-complex management (Fig. 3):
The GWF of each water body is calculated by linking it with the
water resources from different sources – surface and groundwa-
monthly urban returns (j) discharged into it. This is feasible due to
ter resources, desalination, transfers and reuse – and multiple uses
the simulation of the anthropised water cycle, which provides the
that compete for the scarce resources (Grindlay et al., 2011; CHS,
spatial distribution of the monthly sets of return flows, j. The GWF
2013a). On the other hand, this case study assessed the robustness
calculation varies from surface water to groundwater due to their
and applicability of the methodological novelties proposed, serving
differing hydrological behaviours.
as a guide for their implementation.
Pollutants are assumed to be constant in streamflows since
Comprehensive information on the SRB can be found in Grindlay
generally there is not enough detailed information to allow more-
et al. (2011) and on the website of the water board of the basin
complex modelling. Additionally, pollutants must not be dimin-
ished by biochemical processes along streamflows (Whitehead and
As previously mentioned, the simulation of the anthropised
Lack, 1982). The GWF is defined as the volume that is required to
water cycle was carried out by means of the hydrological model
assimilate the load of pollutants, so this concept already consid-
SIMPA and the DSS Optiges. SIMPA (Gonzalez-Zeas et al., 2012) is
ers the reactions of the pollutants in the water bodies. Therefore,
a distributed model at a monthly time-scale, used by the water
the GWF of a stretch of river (surface water body) in the month t
board of the Segura River Basin to establish the natural water
(GWFSurface [x,t]) is obtained by the sum of all GWFs caused by the
resources available (CHS, 2013a). The DSS Optiges is the optimisa-
m discharges located further upstream (Eq. (5)).
tion module of AquatoolDMA (Paredes-Arquiola et al., 2014), one
of the most-frequently-used platforms of water resources manage-


GWFSurface [x, t] = GWFSurface [j, x, t] (5) ment (Salla et al., 2014). This DSS has been used previously in the
SRB (CHS, 2008), as it can recreate the allocation of resources fol-
lowing the criteria set by the Spanish water planning law (BOE,
As far as groundwater is concerned, the GWF for every aquifer 2008). This DSS aims to distribute water resources among the differ-
(groundwater body) in the month t (GWFGround [x,t]) is calculated ent types of demand by fulfilling the following criteria: (i) respect
as the sum of the GWFs caused by all m discharges into the aquifers of environmental flows in natural courses, as established by the
(Eq. (6)). Water Framework Directive (WFD) (EC, 2000); (ii) distribution of
the water resources available among the different types of demand,

m according to the order of priority, to share the deficits in periods of
GWFGround [x, t] = GWFGround [j, x, t] (6) scarcity; and (iii) storage of the greatest possible volume of water
j=1 in reservoirs, once the first two criteria are met.

The above-stated expressions provide the monthly GWF for 3.1. GWF calculation scenarios
every water body during the simulation period. The GWF of the
entire basin for a month t (Eq. (7)) can be obtained from that set With regard to the use of the GWF as a pollution indicator in
of values. The monthly GWFs are aggregated to obtain the annual integrated water resources management, the GWF calculation falls
F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183 1177

Fig. 3. Location and main features of the study area.

within the hydrological planning process, which is regulated by The natural resources available were simulated for each sce-
the WFD in Europe (EC, 2000). For this case study, the scenar- nario by SIMPA and were introduced into the Optiges flow network,
ios for years 2010, 2015 and 2027 suggested by the Spanish law designed according to the official data (CHS, 1998, 2013a). This
(BOE, 2008) were used. The year 2010 is the starting point of the improves upon the former models (CHS, 2008) in the following
water planning process used in the case study; the 2015 scenario aspects:
takes into account actions planned in the short-term management;
and the 2027 scenario incorporates the long-term, foreseen actions. (i) All existing demands are regarded.
Furthermore, the scenario employed in the first hydrological model (ii) Groundwater resources and reuse of treated wastewater are
of the SRB in 1998 was included with the aim of assessing the included.
historical evolution of the SRB. (iii) Resources from desalination are introduced based on demand
The main data sets for every scenario are depicted in Table 1. levels rather than as a continuous inflow.
These were compiled for this work using the SRB water board (iv) The simulation period for each scenario accounts for 70 con-
scenarios (CHS, 2013a). The data required for the 1998 and secutive years (1940–2010) at a monthly scale, using the full
2010 scenarios were elaborated from the statistical data of water set of results provided by the hydrological model SIMPA.
consumption, whereas the data needed for the 2015 and 2027
scenarios are water consumption projections in the short- and
3.2. Data on pollutants
long-term, respectively. In these projections, demographic trends,
previsions of building plans for tourism and irrigation expan-
Establishing the pollutants is key to GWF calculation (Eq. (4)).
sion were taken into account (CHS, 2013a). The so-called urban
In this way, the monthly return flows (Qeff ), provided by the sim-
demand includes domestic water supply, tourism and industry,
ulation of the anthropised water cycle, are revealed, as well as the
and is separated from the irrigation demand in the modelling,
pollutants delivered and their concentrations, which are discussed
which accounts for the larger volume in this case study. The
environmental requirements are the ecological flows and environ-
Countries regulate the maximum accepted concentrations of the
mental demands, the water required to maintain the wet areas.
most-hazardous pollutants in their environmental laws. The val-
These environmental requirements have the highest priority, fol-
ues vary from one country to another and there is a wide range
lowed by urban demand, and irrigation demands have the lowest
of maximum allowable concentrations within the EU (Laane et al.,
1178 F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183

Table 1
Average data (Mm3 /year) of the scenarios introduced in the DSS.


1998 2010 2015 2027

Environmental Environmental flowsa 0 0 0 0

requirements Environmental demands 30 32 32 32
Domestic and tourism 221 249 253 297
Industry 27 20 21 29
Irrigation 1662 1552 1530 1533
Surface and groundwater 1010 1010 1010 921b
Water resources Desalinationc 0 81 129 334
Transfer 337 337 337 300

Source: Own elaboration based on CHS (1998) and CHS (2013a).

Environmental flows are established in all the river stretches (varying between 0.2 and 5.7 m3 /s) except for the river mouth, where a null environmental flow is set,
representing hence no consumption. This does not mean that it is always zero in the river mouth but it has no priority of use.
In the 2027 scenario, an 11% reduction of the natural resources is considered due to climate change (BOE, 2008).
Maximum desalination capacity of the basin. Desalination volume in the modelling depends on the natural water resources availability. In scarcity years the volume of
water desalination is highest, whereas in wet years the volume decreases due to the natural water resources are used instead of desalinated water, which is more expensive.

Table 2 whereas, if it is delivered to groundwater, only nitrate was used, for

Maximum acceptable pollutant concentrations in Spain.
there is no explicit restriction for phosphate, as shown in Table 2.
Pollutant (k) Surface water bodies Groundwater bodies Dechmi et al. (2013) pointed out that the larger the returned
Biological oxygen <6 mg/L O2 Not applicable water volume, the lower the concentration of nutrients, due to
demand (BOD5 ) increased dilution. Therefore, we used a pollutant concentration

Nitrates <25 mg/L NO3 <50 mg/L (ceff ) that varied depending on the returned volume in each case,
Phosphates <0.4 mg/L PO4 3− Not applicable based on the predominant irrigation system: the maximum con-
Source: Own elaboration based on BOE (2008). centration (ceff max ) was assigned if the return was equal to or less
than 5%; the average concentration (ceff ave ) was used for returns
between 5% and 10%; and the minimum concentration (ceff min ) was
This study incorporated the three main pollutants discharged used when the return accounted for more than 10% (Table 3).
by urban wastewater and irrigation return flows: organic matter, High variability in concentrations is usual in irrigation returns,
phosphate and nitrate (Morera et al., 2015). The latter two are on as proved by other studies (Barros et al., 2012; Causape et al., 2006).
the list of principal pollutants of the EU (EC, 2000), and a specific With the aim of assessing the influence of the selected concentra-
directive on agriculture-related nitrate was drafted (EC, 1991). tion of nitrate on the final GWF, a sensitivity analysis of the results
The concentrations of all three pollutants (cmax ) are restricted obtained was conducted. Nitrate, phosphate and organic matter
in Spain by three indicators: biological oxygen demand (BOD5 ), were found in the urban returns. The equivalent concentration was
expressed in milligrams of oxygen consumed (O2 ) by organic mat- calculated globally (CEq ) for each pollutant for the whole basin (Qeff ,
ter; the concentration of nitrate (NO3 − ); and the concentration QT , QT–R ), using the technical information elaborated by the water
of phosphate (PO4 3− ). A distinction is made between surface and board (CHS, 1998, 2013a). The data on the scenarios for years 1998
groundwater (Table 2). The thresholds set are constant in time, so and 2010 are actual measurements, whereas forecasts made by the
the maximum concentration only depends on the type of water water board were used for 2015 and 2027 (Table 4).
body and the pollutant k. Where a variable maximum concentra- Table 5 shows the concentrations in the untreated return flows
tion is established (e.g., by month or by season), the variability must (CNT ) and the treatment efficiency percentages used to determine
be regarded in the calculation. the concentrations in the treated return flows (CT ). These data were
Once the pollutants to be covered by this study had been taken from the exploitation registers of the management compa-
established, the data on the pollutant concentrations in the main nies operating the treatment plants of the SRB (ESAMUR, 2013;
discharges to the SRB (irrigation and urban return flows) were col- EPSAR, 2013). If the discharge was delivered to surface water, all
lected, to obtain the pollutant concentrations in irrigation return three pollutants were used in the GWF calculation; whereas, only
flows (ceff ) and the equivalent concentrations (CEq ) in urban return nitrate was included in the case of groundwater.
flows. For the irrigation returns, concentration values (ceff ) were After defining all the variables involved in the calculation of the
taken from the study developed by Dechmi et al. (2013), one of equivalent concentration for the whole basin, the CEq of every pol-
the most-comprehensive works on irrigation leachates (Table 3). lutant (Table 6) was obtained by applying Eq. (3), using the data
This type of discharges carries two of the three above-mentioned previously presented (Tables 4 and 5). These CEq values were used
substances: nitrate and phosphate. If the return is delivered in sur- for every urban return flow simulated in the anthropised water
face water, both pollutants were included in the GWF calculation; cycle (Qeff ).

Table 3
Pollutant concentrations in irrigation returns.

Pollutant (k) ceff

ceff–max (mg/L) ceff–ave (mg/L) ceff–min (mg/L)

NO3 − 173 67 28
Irrigation returns
PO4 3− 1.180 0.261 0.008

Source: Own elaboration based on Dechmi et al. (2013).

F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183 1179

Table 4
Volumes of urban returns and treated volumes: past, present and future.

Year Return flows (Mm3 /year)

Total (Qeff ) Treated (QT ) Reused (QT–R ) Treated and discharged (QT–E ) Untreated and discharged (QNT )

1998 126.0 86.0 51.0 35.0 40.0

2010 145.1 143.6 82.6 61.0 1.5
2015 146.5 145.0 83.4 61.6 1.5
2027 171.1 169.4 97.4 67.0 1.7

Source: Own elaboration based CHS (1998) and CHS (2013a).

Table 5
Degree of water treatment in the SRB: past, present and future.

Year Concentrations in the untreated Pollutant elimination efficiency of Concentrations in the treated effluent
effluent (CNT ), (mg/L) treatment plants (%) (CT ), (mg/L)

BOD5 NO3 − PO4 3− BOD5 NO3 − PO4 3− BOD5 NO3 − PO4 3−

1998 557 86 57 46 78.0 34.4 7.0

2010 311 96 64 52 12.4 28.8 6.2
80 13
2015 325 99 67 54 3.3 26.4 6.0
2027 325 100 75 60 0.0 20.0 5.2

Source: Own elaboration based on ESAMUR (2013) and EPSAR (2013).

Table 6 4. Results and discussion

Equivalent concentrations (CEq ) in urban return flows.

Year Average equivalent concentrations in each 4.1. The GWF of the Segura River Basin
effluent (CEq ), (mg/L)

BOD5 NO3 − PO4 3− The application of the methodology developed in the SRB gave
a total GWF (GWFTotal ) for the present scenario of 1150 Mm3 /year,
1998 198.5 35.0 6.1
2010 8.4 12.9 2.8
on average. This value is one of the three components of the total
2015 4.7 11.9 2.6 WF (green, blue and grey) of 5582 Mm3 /year, on average; this value
2027 3.2 9.2 2.3 was calculated by Pellicer-Martínez (2014) in a preliminary study.
The other two values are the green WF (3231 Mm3 /year, that repre-
sents the rainwater consumed by agricultural and forestry products
3.3. Natural concentrations (cnat ) of pollutants in water bodies in the SRB), and the blue WF (1201 Mm3 /year, that represents water
resources consumed by urban and irrigation demands). Therefore,
A large number of water bodies in a river basin are chemically the GWFTotal accounts for 20% of the total WF. This underlines the
altered by human activities and quality measurements, to deter- importance of the GWF in the total WF, especially when one con-
mine and monitor the pollution levels, commenced when the water siders that the GWF value is calculated by taking into account high
bodies were already altered. That is why data on natural concentra- rates of water treatment and reuse in the SRB.
tions (cnat ) are not usually available. The lack of information makes Although this GWFTotal value cannot be compared with others,
it necessary to estimate the values indirectly, by numerical mod- because there are no previous results, a global sustainability analy-
elling for instance. Liu et al. (2012) suggested a method linking sis was possible – by comparing this value with the available water
natural concentrations to the population density of the study area. resources in the river basin, which account for 1010 Mm3 /year
To this end, it was assumed that river basins with population den- (surface and groundwater in Table 1). This analysis indicates that
sities equal to or less than 1 inhabitant per 10 km2 are unaltered. the GWF is not sustainable since it exceeds the available water
Another drawback is the need to know the temporal variability of resources, which thus cannot assimilate the total discharges of pol-
the natural concentration in every water body. Due to the scarcity lutants in the river basin.
of information in this regard, it was assumed to be constant (Liu Next, an analysis of the spatial and temporal variability of the
et al., 2012). GWFTotal was conducted, as well as its breakdown into different
No numerical modelling was needed in this study as there were types of discharges and water bodies. This was possible due to the
already measurements of the concentrations in the headwaters of simulation of 70 years of the hydrological cycle of the SRB. The
the SRB, where the population density is lower. Therefore, the mea- results are presented below.
surements made in surface water showed that most BOD5 values The calculation of the main statistical data of the annual
and nitrate and phosphate concentrations were around 0 (CHS, GWFTotal revealed that it is very stable, given its variation coefficient
2013b), which allowed the establishment of null values for the (Table 7). After breaking down this variable into the different types
natural concentrations (cnat ) of all three pollutants. of discharge, it is noticeable that urban return flows (GWFUrban ),
Natural concentrations in the less-altered aquifers from the the main source of the GWFTotal , are also responsible for its low
headwaters of the Segura River were taken as references for variability. The stability of the GWFUrban stems from the fact that
groundwater flows (Gu et al., 2013). The set of measurements (CHS, the supply of urban demands is better guaranteed than the irriga-
2013c) indicates that a low natural nitrate concentration (cnat ) of tion demands (GWFIrrigation ), which implies that urban returns are
3 mg/L exists in most aquifers of the study area. This value was also stable. The impact on surface water bodies (GWFSurface ), which
established as the natural concentration for groundwater. is much higher than that on groundwater bodies (GWFGrounwater ),
As the results showed no temporal variability, the natural pol- is due mainly to urban return flows (966 of the 1027 Mm3 /year),
lutant concentrations were considered constant in both the surface while the impact on groundwater is mainly caused by irrigation
and groundwater water bodies. returns (121 of the 182 Mm3 /year).
1180 F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183

Table 7
Total GWF for the 2010 scenario. Breakdown into types of discharges and water bodies, and annual basic statistical data for each variable.

Basic statistical data (Mm3 /year) GWFTotal Breakdown into discharge type Breakdown into water body type

GWFUrban GWFIrrigation GWFSurface GWFGroundwater

Mean 1150 967 182 1027 122

Maximum 1156 969 187 1032 124
Minimum 1095 947 149 991 104
Range 61 22 39 41 20
Standard deviation 11 4 7 7 4
Variation coefficient 0.010 0.004 0.037 0.006 0.030
n (year) 70

Fig. 4. Spatial distribution of the GWFSurface by river stretches and GWFGroundwater by groups of aquifers.

Regarding the spatial distribution of the GWFTotal , the GWFSurface other hand, in groundwater bodies the critic pollutant is nitrate,
indicates that the stretches of river closer to the river mouth present since it is the only limited pollutant. This result corroborates the
the greatest pollution problems, as this area receives all the surface serious problem caused by existing nutrients in river basins (Liu
pollutant discharges delivered into the river network (Fig. 4). On the et al., 2012), even in basins where water treatment and reuse are
other hand, the aquifers (GWFGroundwater ) that are most affected by implemented. It also shows that the guidelines for reducing the
discharges are located in the coastal areas of Campo de Cartagena GWFTotal need to vary, depending on the type of water body which
and the valleys of the Segura River and Guadalentín River, where receives the discharges.
the largest irrigation areas are located (Fig. 4) (Grindlay et al., 2011). Finally, the sensitivity analysis of the nitrate concentrations
The monthly variation of the GWFTotal is maximal in the summer in the irrigation returns (ceff–max , ceff–med , ceff–min ) indicates that
months, doubling the minimum values occurring in winter. This a simultaneous variation of ±1% in these three concentrations
seasonality is the result of the different monthly rates of supply to implies a variation of ±0.16% in the GWFTotal . Thus, the GWFTotal
both urban consumption and irrigation, which also imply monthly value is much less sensitive to the nitrate concentration in the irri-
variation in the returns. Therefore, the largest part of the GWFTotal is gation returns than to the concentration in the urban return flows.
generated in the summer, when the conditions favour eutrophica-
tion – which worsens the negative impact of pollutant discharges
(Carstensen et al., 2007). On the other hand, intra-monthly vari- 130
ability is not relevant, as most of the GWF is caused by the returns 120 Max
coming from urban demands, the supply of which is highly guar- Average

anteed (Fig. 5). Min

As far as the analysis of pollutants is concerned, the study reveals
critic pollutants in the water bodies. In all surface water bodies, 90
a volume to assimilate each pollutant is calculated (phosphate, 80
nitrate and organic matter). In all cases, phosphate provides the 70







largest volume of fresh water (since relation between pollutant load

(L) and cmax –cnat is the largest). Thus, volume to assimilate phos-
phate can assimilate the other two pollutants. Therefore, phosphate Month
is currently the critic pollutant for surface water in Segura River
Fig. 5. Monthly variability of the GWFTotal : mean of the 70 simulated years and
Basin, as occurs in other basin in Spain (Morera et al., 2015). On the confidence intervals.
F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183 1181

GWF neither water treatment nor reuse GWF with water treatment GWF with water treatment and reuse

GWFTotal (Mm3/year)
1998 2010 2015 2027
Fig. 6. Evolution of the GWF throughout the different scenarios: considering neither wastewater treatment nor reuse, considering wastewater treatment, and considering
wastewater treatment and reuse.

Table 8 reduces the GWFTotal by around 1200 Mm3 /year, equivalent to a

Equivalent concentrations for the scenarios with wastewater treatment (without
halving of the GWFTotal obtained if water was only treated and not
reused. The analysis demonstrates that, even though the reduction
Year Concentrations in the effluent (CEq , mg/L) if there of the GWFTotal by reuse is lower than the effect of treatment, the
were no direct reuse
reductions due to water reuse are greater than the water resources
BOD5 NO3 − PO4 3− of the SRB as a whole (Table 7). This underlines that water reuse is
1998 230.0 48.9 8.9 key to diminishing the impact of pollution on the water bodies of
2010 15.5 29.3 6.3 a river basin.
2015 6.5 26.9 6.1
2027 3.2 20.6 5.3

5. Conclusions
4.2. Evolution and forecast of the GWFTotal in the SRB
This paper proposes a methodological approach for the assess-
The results obtained for the four scenarios were compared in ment of the Grey Water Footprint (GWF) at the river basin level
order to analyse the historic evolution of the GWFTotal . In the first (Zeng et al., 2012), the territorial unit of water resources man-
time interval, from 1998 until 2010, the GWFTotal was reduced by agement. The flows (discharges) causing the GWF are identified
up to 2842 Mm3 /year, on average, proving the key role of water at the spatial and temporal levels by a comprehensive simulation
treatment and reuse in pollutant reduction. In the 2015 scenario, of the anthropised hydrological cycle combined with a hydrolog-
a GWFTotal of 1102 Mm3 /year is foreseen, which represents a 4% ical model and a decision support system. The transformation of
reduction with respect to 2010. The trend is downward between these flows into the GWF requires the adaptation of the standard
1998 and 2015, when it is predicted that the GWFTotal will start formulation of the indicator in order to embrace the particulari-
to increase, to 1192 Mm3 /year in 2027. The determinants of this ties of a river basin, overcoming some of the restrictions imposed
upward trend in the future are the increase in the urban demand by the indicator (Wang and Wu, 2014; Morera et al., 2015). These
and the difficulty in improving the rates of water treatment and include discharges with other pollutants, in addition to the criti-
reuse that have been achieved so far (Tables 6 and 7). Fig. 6 shows cal pollutant used in the calculation of GWF, and the presence of
this evolution graphically (GWFTotal with wastewater treatment wastewater treatment (Morera et al., 2015) and reuse processes in
and reuse). the river basin. The methodology proposed not only calculates the
Given the weight of the wastewater treatment and reuse, their total GWF in a river basin but also establishes the spatial and tempo-
impact on the GWFTotal is assessed in absolute terms. To this ral distribution of the GWF, allowing the identification of areas and
end, the four scenarios analysed are reconsidered with two new periods with greater pollution impact on water bodies (Liu et al.,
hypotheses: (i) neither wastewater treatment nor reuse exist in 2012), the most-hazardous discharges, and the water bodies that
the basin (null QT and QT–R ); and (ii) only wastewater treatment are more sensitive to pollution.
is performed in the basin (null QT–R ). The equivalent concentra- Regarding this case study, the majority of the GWF is generated
tions used in hypothesis (i) are those of the untreated discharges by urban returns despite the fact that agricultural demand is much
(Table 5), and the data in Table 8 are employed for hypothesis (ii). larger in volume than urban demand. The wastewater treatment of
The calculations show that the GWFTotal of the SRB would the urban returns reduces the GWF notably (Morera et al., 2015).
be 13,000 Mm3 /year in the 2010 scenario and would exceed However, the results show that it is very difficult to obtain a null
16,000 Mm3 /year in 2027, in the absence of wastewater treatment GWF in a river basin due to the difficulty in diminishing the con-
and direct reuse processes. This analysis reveals that these two centrations of nutrient pollutants. In addition, this paper reveals
actions combined can reduce the present GWFTotal by up to 91%. the importance of the direct reuse of treated wastewater. Direct
The simulations carried out considering only wastewater treat- reuse halves the GWF of the river basin studied, so this action can
ment showed that this action generates the largest reduction of the be useful in river basins which include irrigated areas. In summary,
GWFTotal : more than 50% for 1998 and more than 80% for the other the results obtained in this case study suggest some guidelines for
scenarios. general application. First, the GWF cannot be disregarded in the cal-
According to the previous calculations, the GWFTotal is reduced culation of the WF at the territorial level under any circumstances,
even more if treated wastewater is directly reused. For the 2010, not even in river basins with high levels of wastewater treatment
2015 and 2027 scenarios, direct reuse of treated wastewater and direct reuse. Second, urban return flows have an important
1182 F. Pellicer-Martínez, J.M. Martínez-Paz / Ecological Indicators 60 (2016) 1173–1183

influence on the GWF values, even when agricultural demands are EC, 2000. Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council estab-
much larger in volume – which is the case for the SRB. lishing a framework for the Community action in the field of water policy. OJ L
327 on 22 December 2000.
Lastly, the formulation of the GWF used in this paper enables the EPSAR, 2013. Management reports 2011 (in Spanish). Entidad Pública de
direct use of the GWF as an additional indicator in the water plan- Saneamiento de Aguas Residuales de la Comunidad Valenciana. In: Conselleria
ning processes within the framework of integrated water resources d’Agricultura, Pesca, Alimentació i Aigua. Generalitat Valenciana, http://www.
management (IWRM) (Hiscock et al., 2002; Conca, 2006). Rather ESAMUR, 2013. Exploitation registers (in Spanish). Entidad de Saneamiento y Depu-
than a mere static information tool, the GWF can be a criterion in ración de Aguas Residuales de la Región de Murcia,
the decision-making process in the pollution management of a river Fulton, J., Cooley, H., Gleick, P.H., 2014. Water footprint outcomes and policy rel-
evance change with scale considered: evidence from California. Water Resour.
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The authors thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable
Grindlay, A.L., Zamorano, M., Rodríguez, M.I., Molero, E., Urrea, M.A., 2011.
comments, suggestions and positive feedback. All remaining errors, Implementation of the European Water Framework Directive: integration of
however, are solely the responsibility of the authors. hydrological and regional planning at the Segura River Basin, southeast Spain.
This paper is a result of the research project 19342/PI/14 funded Land Use Policy 28 (1), 242–256.
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by “Fundación Séneca-Agencia de Ciencia y Tecnología de la Región ter of China: sources and driving forces. Glob. Environ. Change 23 (5),
de Murcia” in the framework of PCTIRM 2011-2014. 1112–1121.
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