Intermittent, fluctuating and pulsed contaminant discharges may result in organisms receiving highly variable toxicant exposures. This study investigated the toxicity of continuous and pulsed exposures of a complex, neutralised drainage water (NDW) and dissolved copper-spiked dilute NDW to the green alga, Pseudokirchneriella subcapitata. The effects of single pulses of between 1 and 48 h duration and continuous exposures (72 h) on algal growth rate inhibition were compared on a time-averaged concentration (TAC) basis. Algal growth rates generally recovered to control levels within 24e48 h of the pulse removal. Continuous exposures to NDW resulted in similar or marginally higher toxicity to the algae when compared to pulsed exposures of equivalent TAC (% NDW). The toxicity of the NDW was attributed mostly to the metals, with the major cations potentially causing effects that are both additive (direct toxicity) and antagonistic (lower bioavailability of trace metals). For dissolved copper in dilute NDW, the pulsed exposures caused slightly higher toxicity than continuous exposures of equivalent dissolved copper TAC, with much of the difference explained by differences in labile copper concentrations between treatments. The results indicate that water quality guideline values for toxicants derived from continuous chronic exposures may be relaxed for pulsed exposures by a factor related to the TAC with the intent to provide an adequately protective but not overly-conservative outcome. The study highlights the influence that natural water quality parameters such as water hardness and DOC can have metal speciation and toxicity, and indicates that these parameters are particularly important for site-specific water quality guideline value derivation where, on a TAC basis, pulsed exposures may be more toxic than continuous exposures typically used in guideline value derivation.