Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5089
Whitefish Lake, which is officially named Bardon Lake, is an oligotrophic, soft-water seepage lake in northwestern Wisconsin, and classified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as an Outstanding Resource Water. Ongoing monitoring of the lake demonstrated that its water quality began to degrade (increased phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations) around 2002 following a period of high water level. To provide a better understanding of what caused the degradation in water quality, and provide information to better understand the lake and protect it from future degradation, the U.S. Geological Survey did a detailed study from 2004 to 2008. The goals of the study were to describe the past and present water quality of the lake, quantify water and phosphorus budgets for the lake, simulate the potential effects of changes in phosphorus inputs on the lake’s water quality, analyze changes in the water level in the lake since 1900, and relate the importance of changes in climate and changes in anthropogenic (human-induced) factors in the watershed to the water quality of the lake.
Since 1998, total phosphorus concentrations increased from near the 0.005-milligrams per liter (mg/L) detection limit to about 0.010 mg/L in 2006, and then decreased slightly in 2007–08. During this time, chlorophyll a concentrations and Secchi depths remained relatively stable at about 1.5 micrograms per liter (µg/L) and 26 feet, respectively. Whitefish Lake is typically classified as oligotrophic.
Because the productivity in Whitefish Lake is limited by phosphorus, phosphorus budgets were constructed for the lake. Because it was believed that much of its phosphorus comes from the atmosphere, phosphorus deposition was measured in this study. Phosphorus input from the atmosphere was greater than computed based on previously reported wetfall phosphorus concentrations. The concentrations and deposition rates can be used to estimate atmospheric loading in future lake studies. The average annual load of phosphorus to the lake was 232 pounds: 56 percent from precipitation, 27 percent from groundwater, and 16 percent from septic systems. During a series of dry years (low water levels) and wet years (high water levels), the inputs of water and phosphorus ranged by only 10–13 percent.
Results from the Canfield and Bachmann eutrophication model and Carlson trophic-state-index equations demonstrated that the lake directly responds to changes in external phosphorus loading, with percent change in chlorophyll a being similar to the percent change in loading and the change in total phosphorus and Secchi depth being slightly smaller. Therefore, changes in phosphorus loading should affect the water quality of the lake. Specific scenarios that simulated the effects of anthropogenic (human-induced) and climatic (water level) changes demonstrated that: surface-water inflow (runoff) based on current development has little effect on pelagic water quality, changes in the inputs from septic systems and development in the watershed could have a large effect on water quality, and decreases in water and phosphorus loading during periods of low water level had little effect on water quality. Sustained high water levels, resulting from several wet years with relatively high water and phosphorus input, however, could cause a small degradation in water quality. Although high water levels may be associated with a degradation in water quality, it appears that anthropogenic changes in the watershed may be more important in affecting the future water quality of the lake.
Fluctuations in water levels since 1998 are representative of what has occurred since 1900, with fluctuations of about 3 feet occurring about every 15 years. Based on total phosphorus concentrations inferred from sediment core analysis, there has been little long-term change in water quality and there has been a slight deterioration in water quality following most periods of high water levels. Therefore, the recent degradation in water quality appears to be consistent with what may have occurred several times in the past associated with high water levels.
Whitefish Lake is presently a relatively pristine lake and is classified as an Outstanding Resource Water primarily because of the small contributions of phosphorus from its watershed. Controls to minimize the phosphorus input to the lake are very important because what many would consider a small increase in phosphorus loading in most lakes could have a large effect on the phosphorus budget and water quality of Whitefish Lake.
Posted June 23, 2009
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Robertson, D.M., Rose, W.J., and Juckem, P.F., 2009, Water quality and hydrology of Whitefish (Bardon) Lake, Douglas County, Wisconsin, with special emphasis on responses of an oligotrophic seepage lake to changes in phosphorus loading and water level: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5089, 41 p.
Study Methods and Sampling Sites
Water Quality of Whitefish Lake
Inferred Lake Water Quality from Lake-Sediment Analyses
Hydrology and Water Budget
Sources of Phosphorus
Simulated Changes in Water Quality in Response to Changes in Phosphorus Loading and Water Level
Historical Changes in Water Levels and Water Quality in Whitefish Lake
Relative Importance of Anthropogenic Changes in the Watershed and Changes in Water Level
Summary and Conclusions