Phytoplankton are critical component of the food web in most large rivers and estuaries, and thus identifying dominant controls on phytoplankton abundance and species composition is important to scientists, managers, and policymakers. Recent studies from a variety of systems indicate that ammonium ( NH+4) in treated wastewater effluent decreases primary production and alters phytoplankton species composition. However, these findings are based mainly on laboratory and enclosure studies, which may not adequately represent natural systems. To test effects of effluent high in ammonium on phytoplankton at the ecosystem scale, we conducted whole-river–scale experiments by halting discharges to the Sacramento River from the regional wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), and used a Lagrangian approach to compare changes in phytoplankton abundance and species composition in the presence (+EFF) and absence (−EFF) of effluent. Over 5 d of downstream travel from 20 km above to 50 km below the WWTP, chlorophyll concentrations declined from 15–25 to ∼2.5 μg L−1, irrespective of effluent addition. Benthic diatoms were dominant in most samples. We found no significant difference in phytoplankton abundance or species composition between +EFF and −EFF conditions. Moreover, greatest declines in chlorophyll occurred upstream of the WWTP where NH+4 concentrations were low. Grazing by clams and zooplankton could not account for observed losses, suggesting other factors such as hydrodynamics and light limitation were responsible for phytoplankton declines. These results highlight the advantages of conducting ecosystem-scale, Lagrangian-based experiments to understand the dynamic and complex interplay between physical, chemical, and biological factors that control phytoplankton populations.