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Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5134

Prepared in cooperation with the Mercer School District

Water Quality, Hydrology, and Simulated Response to Changes in Phosphorus Loading of Mercer Lake, Iron County, Wisconsin, with Special Emphasis on the Effects of Wastewater Discharges

By Dale M. Robertson, Herbert S. Garn, William J. Rose, Paul F. Juckem, and Paul C. Reneau

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (3.86 MB)Abstract

Mercer Lake is a relatively shallow drainage lake in north-central Wisconsin. The area near the lake has gone through many changes over the past century, including urbanization and industrial development. To try to improve the water quality of the lake, actions have been taken, such as removal of the lumber mill and diversion of all effluent from the sewage treatment plant away from the lake; however, it is uncertain how these actions have affected water quality. Mercer Lake area residents and authorities would like to continue to try to improve the water quality of the lake; however, they would like to place their efforts in the actions that will have the most beneficial effects. To provide a better understanding of the factors affecting the water quality of Mercer Lake, a detailed study of the lake and its watershed was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in collaboration with the Mercer Lake Association. The purposes of the study were to describe the water quality of the lake and the composition of its sediments; quantify the sources of water and phosphorus loading to the lake, including sources associated with wastewater discharges; and evaluate the effects of past and future changes in phosphorus inputs on the water quality of the lake using eutrophication models (models that simulate changes in phosphorus and algae concentrations and water clarity in the lake).

Based on analyses of sediment cores and monitoring data collected from the lake, the water quality of Mercer Lake appears to have degraded as a result of the activities in its watershed over the past 100 years. The water quality appears to have improved, however, since a sewage treatment plant was constructed in 1965 and its effluent was routed away from the lake in 1995. Since 2000, when a more consistent monitoring program began, the water quality of the lake appears to have changed very little. During the two monitoring years (MY) 2008–09, the average summer near-surface concentration of total phosphorus was 0.023 mg/L, indicating the lake is borderline mesotrophic-eutrophic, or has moderate to high concentrations of phosphorus, whereas the average summer chlorophyll a concentration was 3.3 mg/L and water clarity, as measured with a Secchi depth, was 10.4 ft, both indicating mesotrophic conditions or that the lake has a moderate amount of algae and water clarity.

Although actions have been taken to eliminate the wastewater discharges, the bottom sediment still has slightly elevated concentrations of several pollutants from wastewater discharges, lumber operations, and roadway drainage, and a few naturally occurring metals (such as iron). None of the concentrations, however, were high enough above the defined thresholds to be of concern.

Based on nitrogen to phosphorus ratios, the productivity (algal growth) in Mercer Lake should typically be limited by phosphorus; therefore, understanding the phosphorus input to the lake is important when management efforts to improve or prevent degradation of the lake water quality are considered. Total inputs of phosphorus to Mercer Lake were directly estimated for MY 2008–09 at about 340 lb/yr and for a recent year with more typical hydrology at about 475 lb/yr. During these years, the largest sources of phosphorus were from Little Turtle Inlet, which contributed about 45 percent, and the drainage area near the lake containing the adjacent urban and residential developments, which contributed about 24 percent. Prior to 1965, when there was no sewage treatment plant and septic systems and other untreated systems contributed nutrients to the watershed, phosphorus loadings were estimated to be about 71 percent higher than during around 2009. In 1965, a sewage treatment plant was built, but its effluent was released in the downstream end of the lake. Depending on various assumptions on how much effluent was retained in the lake, phosphorus inputs from wastewater may have ranged from 0 to 342 lb. Future highway and stormwater improvements have been identified in the Mercer Infrastructure Improvement Project, and if they are done with the proposed best management practices, then phosphorus inputs to the lake may decrease by about 40 lb.

Eutrophication models [Canfield and Bachman model (1981) and Carlson Trophic State Index equations (1977)] were used to predict how the water quality of Mercer Lake should respond to changes in phosphorus loading. A relatively linear response was found between phosphorus loading and phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations in the lake, with changes in phosphorus concentrations being slightly less (about 80 percent) and changes in chlorophyll a concentrations being slightly more (about 120 percent) than the changes in phosphorus loadings to the lake. Water clarity, indicated by Secchi depths, responded more to decreases in phosphorus loading than to increases in loading.

Results from the eutrophication models indicated that the lake should have been negatively affected by the wastewater discharges. Prior to 1965, when there was no sewage treatment plant effluent and inputs from the septic systems and other untreated systems were thought to be high, the lake should have been eutrophic; near the surface, average phosphorus concentrations were almost 0.035 mg/L, chlorophyll a concentrations were about 7 µg/L, and Secchi depths were about 6 ft, which agreed with the shallower Secchi depths during this time estimated from the sediment-core analysis. The models indicated that between 1965 and 1995, when the lake retained some of the effluent from the new sewage treatment plant, water quality should have been between the conditions estimated prior to 1965 and what was expected during typical hydrologic conditions around MY 2008–09. The models also indicated that if the future Mercer Infrastructure Improvement Project is conducted with the best management practices as proposed, the water quality in the lake could improve slightly from that measured during 2006–10.

Because of the small amount of phosphorus that is presently input into Mercer Lake any additional phosphorus added to the lake could degrade water quality; therefore, management actions can usefully focus on minimizing future phosphorus inputs. Phosphorus released from the sediments of a degraded lake often delays its response to decreases in external phosphorus loading, especially in shallow, frequently mixed systems. Mercer Lake, however, remains stratified throughout most of the summer, and phosphorus released from the sediments represents only about 6 percent, or a small fraction, of the total phosphorus load to the lake. Therefore, the phosphorus trapped in the sediments should minimally affect the long-term water quality of the lake and should not delay the response in its productivity to future changes in nutrient loading from its watershed.

First posted October 2, 2012

For additional information contact:
Director, Wisconsin Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
Wisconsin Water Science Center
8505 Research Way
Middleton, Wisconsin 53562
Phone: 608-821-3810

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Suggested citation:

Robertson, D.M., Garn, H.S., Rose, W.J., Juckem, P.F., and Reneau, P.C., 2012, Hydrology, water quality, and response to simulated changes in phosphorus loading of Mercer Lake, Iron County, Wisconsin, with emphasis on effects of wastewater discharges on water quality: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5134, 58 p., available only at




Mercer Lake and Its Watershed

Data-Collection Methods and Sites

Stratification, Water Chemistry, and Trophic Conditions

Inferred Lake Water Quality from Analyses of Lake Sediment

Quality of the Sediments of Mercer Lake

Hydrology and Water Budget
Sources of Phosphorus
Simulated Changes in Water Quality in Response to Changes in Phosphorus Loading
Importance of Internal Phosphorus Loading to Lake Productivity
Relative Importance of Natural and Anthropogenic Changes in the Watershed to Lake Productivity
Summary and Conclusions
Appendix 1. Wastewater indicators in sediment (Schedule 5433 compounds), analyzed at the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Laboratory in Denver, Colo.

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