A stratified sand filter column, operated in recirculation mode and treating synthetic effluent resembling high-strength dairy wastewaters was studied over a 342-d duration. The aim of this paper was to examine the organic, total suspended solids (TSS) and nutrient removal rates of the sand filter, operated in recirculation mode, under incrementally increasing hydraulic and organic loading rates and to propose a field filter-sizing criterion. Best performance was obtained at a system hydraulic loading rate of 10 L m(-2)d(-1); a higher system hydraulic loading rate (of 13.4 L m(-2)d(-1)) caused surface ponding. The system hydraulic loading rate of 10 L m(-2)d(-1) gave a filter chemical oxygen demand (COD), TSS, and total kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN) loading rate of 14, 3.7, and 2.1 g m(-2)d(-1), respectively, and produced consistent COD and TSS removals of greater than 99%, and an effluent NO3-N concentration of 42 mg L-1 (accounting for an 86% reduction in total nitrogen (Tot-N)). As the proportional surface area requirement for the sand filter described in this study is less than the recommended surface area requirement of a free-water surface (FWS) wetland treating an effluent of similar quality, it could provide an economic and sustainable alternative to conventional wetland treatment. (C) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.