1. Natural variation in environmental parameters, as well as practical constraints in study design and sampling methodology, often pose difficulties in treating impact assessments in river catchments as controlled field experiments. It is frequently impossible to develop robust relationships between reference and test stations prior to the onset of an impact and the range of statistical tools which can be adopted in data analysis to detect a change or disturbance is limited. 2. In an attempt to overcome these problems we introduce a novel disturbance index to assess the impact of landuse activities on river systems. The index identifies differences in hydrochemical parameters and macroinvertebrate community metrics between reference and test stations (at a set level of significance). This approach allows for objective assessment of the occurrence and direction of change as well as the duration of an impact. The disturbance index can be applied at different scales - for a single stream, a catchment or a region. 3. In this paper we describe the derivation of the index and illustrate its utility through worked examples. We use the index to assess impact of clearfelling on hydrochemical parameters such as hydrogen ion concentration, total hardness, suspended solids, conductivity and nitrate concentration as well as on macroinvertebrate parameters including abundance, richness, reciprocal of Simpson's diversity index, evenness, Ephemeroptera/Plecoptera/Trichoptera (EPT) richness and percentage of EPT taxa. 4. The sensitivity of the disturbance index changes with scale of application however, and the clearfelling (CF) index has proven sensitive to the detection of even quite small changes, although in these cases ecological significance should be considered. We show that the CF index, particularly when derived from a regional scale, is a conservative index but is very robust to variation in the number of samples used in its derivation. The application of the index corresponded very well with the application of more standard statistical approaches. We believe that the index can thus be applied to other impact studies with similar project design. © 2005 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.