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Response of Green Lake, Wisconsin, to changes in phosphorus loading, with special emphasis on near-surface total phosphorus concentrations and metalimnetic dissolved oxygen minima

March 9, 2022

Green Lake is the deepest natural inland lake in Wisconsin, with a maximum depth of about 72 meters. In the early 1900s, the lake was believed to have very good water quality (low nutrient concentrations and good water clarity) with low dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations occurring in only the deepest part of the lake. Because of increased phosphorus (P) inputs from anthropogenic activities in its watershed, total phosphorus (TP) concentrations in the lake have increased; these changes have led to increased algal production and low DO concentrations not only in the deepest areas but also in the middle of the water column (metalimnion). The U.S. Geological Survey has routinely monitored the lake since 2004 and its tributaries since 1988. Results from this monitoring led the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) to list the lake as impaired because of low DO concentrations in the metalimnion, and they identified elevated TP concentrations as the cause of impairment.

As part of this study by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Green Lake Sanitary District, the lake and its tributaries were comprehensively sampled in 2017–18 to augment ongoing monitoring that would further describe the low DO concentrations in the lake (especially in the metalimnion). Empirical and process-driven water-quality models were then used to determine the causes of the low DO concentrations and the magnitudes of P-load reductions needed to improve the water quality of the lake enough to meet multiple water-quality goals, including the WDNR’s criteria for TP and DO.

Data from previous studies showed that DO concentrations in the metalimnion decreased slightly as summer progressed in the early 1900s but, since the late 1970s, have typically dropped below 5 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which is the WDNR criterion for impairment. During 2014–18 (the baseline period for this study), the near-surface geometric mean TP concentration during June–September in the east side of the lake was 0.020 mg/L and in the west side was 0.016 mg/L (both were above the 0.015-mg/L WDNR criterion for the lake), and the metalimnetic DO minimum concentrations (MOMs) measured in August ranged from 1.0 to 4.7 mg/L. The degradation in water quality was assumed to have been caused by excessive P inputs to the lake; therefore, the TP inputs to the lake were estimated. The mean annual external P load during 2014–18 was estimated to be 8,980 kilograms per year (kg/yr), of which monitored and unmonitored tributary inputs contributed 84 percent, atmospheric inputs contributed 8 percent, waterfowl contributed 7 percent, and septic systems contributed 1 percent. During fall turnover, internal sediment recycling contributed an additional 7,040 kilograms that increased TP concentrations in shallow areas of the lake by about 0.020 mg/L. The elevated TP concentrations then persisted until the following spring. On an annual basis, however, there was a net deposition of P to the bottom sediments.

Empirical models were used to describe how the near-surface water quality of Green Lake would be expected to respond to changes in external P loading. Predictions from the models showed a relatively linear response between P loading and TP and chlorophyll-a (Chl-a) concentrations in the lake, with the changes in TP and Chl-a concentrations being less on a percentage basis (50–60 percent for TP and 30–70 percent for Chl-a) than the changes in P loading. Mean summer water clarity, quantified by Secchi disk depths, had a greater response to decreases in P loading than to increases in P loading. Based on these relations, external P loading to the lake would need to be decreased from 8,980 kg/yr to about 5,460 kg/yr for the geometric mean June–September TP concentration in the east side of the lake, with higher TP concentrations than in the west side, to reach the WDNR criterion of 0.015 mg/L. This reduction of 3,520 kg/yr is equivalent to a 46-percent reduction in the potentially controllable external P sources (all external sources except for precipitation, atmospheric deposition, and waterfowl) from those measured during water years 2014–18. The total external P loading would need to decrease to 7,680 kg/yr (a 17-percent reduction in potentially controllable external P sources) for near-surface June–September TP concentrations in the west side of the lake to reach 0.015 mg/L. Total external P loading would need to decrease to 3,870–5,320 kg/yr for the lake to be classified as oligotrophic, with a near-surface June–September TP concentration of 0.012 mg/L.

Results from the hydrodynamic water-quality model GLM–AED (General Lake Model coupled to the Aquatic Ecodynamics modeling library) indicated that MOMs are driven by external P loading and internal sediment recycling that lead to high TP concentrations during spring and early summer, which in turn lead to high phytoplankton production, high metabolism and respiration, and ultimately DO consumption in the upper, warmer areas of the metalimnion. GLM–AED results indicated that settling of organic material during summer might be slowed by the colder, denser, and more viscous water in the metalimnion and thus increase DO consumption. Based on empirical evidence from a comparison of MOMs with various meteorological, hydrologic, water quality, and in-lake physical factors, MOMs were lower during summers, when metalimnetic water temperatures were warmer, near-surface Chl-a and TP concentrations were higher, and Secchi depths were lower. GLM–AED results indicated that the external P load would need to be reduced to about 4,060 kg/yr, a 57-percent reduction from that measured in 2014–18, to eliminate the occurrence of MOMs less than 5 mg/L during more than 75 percent of the years (the target provided by the WDNR).

Large reductions in external P loading are expected to have an immediate effect on the near-surface TP concentrations and metalimnetic DO concentrations in Green Lake; however, it may take several years for the full effects of the external-load reduction to be observed because internal sediment recycling is an important source of P for the following spring.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Response of Green Lake, Wisconsin, to changes in phosphorus loading, with special emphasis on near-surface total phosphorus concentrations and metalimnetic dissolved oxygen minima
DOI 10.3133/sir20225003
Authors Dale M. Robertson, Benjamin J. Siebers, Robert Ladwig, David P. Hamilton, Paul C. Reneau, Cory P. McDonald, Stephanie Prellwitz, Richard C. Lathrop
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2022-5003
Index ID sir20225003
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Upper Midwest Water Science Center

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