The impacts of land disturbance on streams have been studied extensively, but a quantitative mechanism of stream degradation is still lacking. Small changes in land use result in changes in physical and chemical characteristics in the stream, which significantly alter biotic integrity. The objective of this study was to quantify the mechanisms of aquatic ecosystem degradation in streams impacted by watershed urbanization. By quantifying the development level and the changes in the physical parameters of receiving streams, the effects of land use change can be illustrated in a conceptual model and evaluated using a traditional ecological risk assessment framework. Three 1st-order streams draining catchments undergoing varying stages of land development were examined in the upper Piedmont physiographic province of South Carolina, USA. A disturbance index was developed to quantify the changes in land use on a monthly basis. This normalized disturbance index (NDI) was quantitatively linked to an increase in the percentage of impervious cover, stormwater runoff, storm-event total suspended solid (TSS) concentrations, and the North Carolina biotic index (NCBI). The NDI was inversely related to a decline in habitat, median bed-sediment particle size, and benthic index of biotic integrity (BIBI). Unlike the percentage of impervious cover, the NDI facilitated the development of strategies for multiple scales of regulation. Predictive multivariate regressions were developed for storm-event TSS concentrations, the BIBI, and the NCBI. These regressions can be used to develop improved regulations for the effects of development and can lead to better implementation of best management practices, improved monitoring of land use change, and more sustainable development.