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Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5072

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Prepared in cooperation with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection

Nutrient Loading and Algal Response in West Thompson Lake, Thompson, Connecticut, 2003–2005

By Jonathan Morrison and Michael J. Colombo

This report is available as a printed product and in PDF Format (2.34 MB), Report Cover (985 KB)


Water quality and nutrient loads were characterized for parts of the Quinebaug River and West Thompson Lake in northeastern Connecticut during 2003 to 2005. The West Thompson Lake watershed is a mainly forested watershed that receives treated municipal wastewater from several point sources in Massachusetts. The lake is a flood-control reservoir formed in 1966 by impoundment of the Quinebaug River. Median concentrations of total phosphorus in two inflow (upstream) and one outflow (downstream) sampling stations on the Quinebaug River were higher than the nutrient criteria recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) for rivers and streams in aggregate Ecoregion XIV. In general, concentrations of total phosphorus in West Thompson Lake also were above the nutrient criteria recommended by USEPA for lakes and impoundments in aggregate Ecoregion XIV.

The trophic status of West Thompson Lake has changed since 1995 from a hypereutrophic lake to a eutrophic lake; however, the lake still has large algal blooms. These blooms are predominated by blue-green algae, with chlorophyll-a concentrations of more than 30 micrograms per liter and algal cell counts as high as 73,000 cells/mL. Water samples collected during the summer of 2005 identified phosphorus as the primary limiting nutrient early in the season, but algal growth is probably co-limited by phosphorus and nitrogen later in the season.

Lake-bottom sediments were collected from several areas throughout the lake and ranged in thickness from less than 1 foot (ft) to more than 3 ft. Concentrations of phosphorus in sediments differed throughout the lake; the highest values were found in the middle of the lake. Concentrations of total phosphorus also increased from an average 1,800 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) in the upper layers of sediment to more than 6,000 mg/kg at depth in the sediment.

Annual, seasonal, and monthly loads and yields of nutrients were calculated for the three sampling locations on the Quinebaug River to develop a nutrient mass-balance model (budget) for West Thompson Lake. The average annual yields of total phosphorus during 2000 to 2005 were 115 pounds per square mile per year (lb/mi2/yr) at Quinebaug (inflow station), 116 lb/mi2/yr at Red Bridge Road (inflow station), and 97.9 lb/mi2/yr at West Thompson (outflow station). The 18-percent decrease in the average annual yield of total phosphorus between the inflow station at Red Bridge Road and the outlet of West Thompson Lake at West Thompson indicates that a significant part of the phosphorus load is retained in the lake. Annual yields of total phosphorus at Quinebaug have decreased significantly since the 1980s, from 362 lb/mi2/yr (for 1981–1990) to 115 lb/mi2/yr (1996–2005).

The annual net export of phosphorus in West Thompson Lake during water years 2000 to 2005 ranged from -36 percent (2005) to 1 percent (2002) of the incoming load. Seasonal mass-balance data for total phosphorus during the summers of 2000 to 2003, when streamflow was at or lower than normal, indicated a net export of phosphorus that ranged from 3.4 percent (2003) to 30.7 percent (2002) of the incoming load. During the summer of 2004, however, streamflows were much higher than normal, and there was a negative export of phosphorus in West Thompson Lake of -3.9 percent. The annual net export of nitrogen in West Thompson Lake during water years 2000 to 2005 ranged from -5 percent (2002) to 4 percent (2001) of the incoming load. No clear pattern was evident to relate total nitrogen export to seasonal variables or runoff.

Removal of phosphorus during the summer by wastewater-treatment plants (WWTPs) in Massachusetts reduces the concentration and load of total phosphorus entering West Thompson Lake in the summer; however, the large amount of phosphorus retained in the lake during the other seasons, in addition to the phosphorus stored in the lake-bottom sediments, may become available to fuel algal blooms in the lake and (or) in areas downstream from the lake during the critical summer growing season. The seasonal phosphorus removal at the WWTPs lowers the concentration of phosphorus entering the lake during the summer and probably reduces the magnitude and duration of algal blooms that occur in West Thompson Lake.

Suggested citation:

Morrison, Jonathan, and Colombo, M.J., 2008, Nutrient loading and algal response in West Thompson Lake, Thompson, Connecticut, 2003–2005: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5072, 79 p., available only online at

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