The performance of various algal indices to document improvements in water quality across a low nutrient concentration gradient was assessed during 2 years in the St Lawrence River (Quebec, Canada). Water-quality variables and periphyton samples were collected on navigational buoys near Montreal during the spring, summer and fall of 1994 and 1995. Exposure to urban wastewater varied widely within the sector surrounding the island of Montreal, with some areas upstream receiving no direct effluents and areas further downstream receiving treated and untreated wastewater. Faecal coliform concentrations provided a good tracer of effluents and were significantly correlated to nutrient concentrations (r = 0.33-0.72, p < 0.001) and water transparency (r = 0.70, p < 0.001). Despite a strong gradient in faecal coliform concentration (< 2 to > 20 000 UFC/100 ml), algal biomass and diversity did not reflect differences between sites with varying levels of urban wastewater. Taxonomic composition of periphyton communities, particularly the presence of the cyanophyte Plectonema notatum Schmidle, was related (r = 0.48, p = 0.004) to exposure to urban effluents. Variables describing seasonal changes (temperature, Julian day, river discharge, conductivity, NO2-NO3) explained a large fraction of total variance (38-52% of total variance) and thus exerted the predominant influence on algal biomass and species composition in the St Lawrence River. Variables describing the presence of effluents explained 1-22% of the variance in compositional data. Subtle changes in periphyton species composition were the only response to different levels of exposure to urban wastewater in the Montreal area, which represented relatively small differences in comparison to natural seasonal variability.