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Spatial and temporal variability of nutrients and algae in the Republican River and Milford Lake, Kansas, June through November 2017 and May through November 2018

February 16, 2021

Milford Lake has been listed as impaired and designated hypereutrophic because of excessive nutrient loading, specifically biologically available orthophosphate. It is the largest lake by surface area in Kansas and is a reservoir built for purposes including water supply and recreation. In 2015, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) divided the lake into three zones (Zones A, B, and C) for recreational monitoring of harmful algal blooms (HABs). Upstream Zone C has historically been more affected by HABs than Zones B and A, and Zone C has historically had the highest phosphorus concentrations.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the KDHE, completed a study in 2017–18 to assess the spatial and temporal variability of nutrients and algae in the Republican River (the primary inflow to Milford Lake) and Milford Lake using spatially and temporally dense data. During the study period, discrete water-quality samples were collected at 36 lake sites, 21 river sites, and 1 pond. All samples were analyzed for nutrients; some samples were also analyzed for chlorophyll, phycocyanin, microcystin, and (or) phytoplankton community composition and abundance. Results from this study provide perspective for understanding the potential role nutrient and algal conditions have in facilitating the formation of HABs and may inform future actions to prevent and mitigate HABs and their potential effects on human and environmental health.

In 2017, one low-flow floating synoptic on the Republican River into Zone C of Milford Lake and one 24-hour synoptic in Zone C of Milford Lake were completed. Results from the low-flow floating synoptic on July 17, 2017, at 21 river sites, 8 lake sites, and 1 pond site indicated that the Republican River was not contributing dissolved orthophosphate or total phosphorus concentrations higher than those in the main body of Milford Lake.

No patterns in nutrient or total microcystin concentrations were evident from the 24-hour synoptic at two sites on August 24–25, 2017. Total nitrogen was dominated by total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN) at both sites. Different oscillation activity in algal biomass and chlorophyll at the two sites demonstrated the variable nature of algal accumulations and their effects on nutrient and dissolved oxygen concentrations. Different patterns in chlorophyll and microcystin concentrations indicate that the relation between algal biomass and cyanotoxin concentrations were different at the two sites, possibly because of differences among algal communities present at each site.

Three whole-lake synoptics through Zones A, B, and C in Milford Lake were completed on July 10, August 9, and October 16–17, 2018, at 30 lake sites. Orthophosphate was consistently at least 77 percent of total phosphorus at all sites except the two most uplake sites. At the two most uplake sites, orthophosphate was between 52 and 72 percent of the total phosphorus present at the site.

Concentrations of TKN were not consistently increasing or decreasing during 2018. Total nitrogen was dominated by TKN in July and August. Very low concentrations of dissolved nitrate plus nitrite indicate that the nutrient was likely tied up in algal biomass. By October, total nitrogen was approximately one-half TKN and one-half dissolved nitrate plus nitrite. Higher concentrations of dissolved orthophosphate and dissolved nitrate plus nitrite in October than in July and August were likely caused by reduced biological activity (less uptake of nutrients) and lower air and water temperatures. Multiple inflow events (streamflow greater than median daily value) between August and October also may have moved nutrients through the lake.

Chlorophyll, phycocyanin, microcystin, and phytoplankton samples were collected at eight sites in 2018. Most sites had their highest chlorophyll concentrations in August. The three most uplake sites had their highest phycocyanin concentrations in July, whereas the other five sites had their highest phycocyanin concentrations in August. Two of 23 samples had detections of total microcystin (0.11 and 0.12 microgram per liter). Phytoplankton community composition mainly consisted of Bacillariophyta, Chlorophyta, Cryptophyta, and Cyanobacteria. Phytoplankton community composition and abundance data described broad seasonal patterns and did not capture the full range of possible conditions at each site.