Lake Water Quality

Lakes can be classified into three broad categories based on their productivity or ability to support plant and animal life. The three basic lake classifications are “oligotrophic,” “mesotrophic,” and “eutrophic.”

Oligotrophic lakes are generally deep and clear with
little aquatic plant growth. These lakes maintain
sufficient dissolved oxygen in the cool, deep bottom
waters during late summer to support cold-water fish
such as trout and whitefish.

Eutrophic lakes have poor clarity and support
abundant aquatic plant growth. In deep eutrophic
lakes, the cool bottom waters usually contain little or
no dissolved oxygen. Therefore, these lakes can only
support warm-water fish such as bass and pike.

Lakes that fall between the two extremes of oligotrophic
and eutrophic are called mesotrophic lakes.

Under natural conditions, most lakes will ultimately
evolve to a eutrophic state as they gradually fill with
sediment and organic matter transported to the lake
from the surrounding watershed. As the lake becomes
shallower, the process accelerates. When aquatic plants
become abundant, the lake slowly begins to fill in as sediment and decaying plant matter accumulate on the lake bottom. Eventually, terrestrial plants become established and the lake is transformed to a marshland. The natural lake aging process can be greatly accelerated if excessive amounts of sediment and nutrients (which stimulate aquatic plant growth) enter the lake from the surrounding watershed. Because these added inputs are usually associated with human activity, this accelerated lake aging process is often referred to as cultural eutrophication.

There are many ways to measure lake water quality, but there are a few important physical, chemical, and biological parameters that indicate the overall condition of a lake. These measurements include temperature, dissolved oxygen, total phosphorus, chlorophyll-a, and Secchi transparency.


Temperature is important in determining the type of organisms that may live in a lake. For example, trout prefer temperatures below 68°F. Temperature also determines how water mixes in a lake. As the ice cover breaks up on a lake in the spring, the water temperature becomes uniform from the surface to the bottom. This period is referred to as “spring turnover” because water mixes throughout the entire water column. As the surface waters warm, they are underlain by a colder, more dense layer of water. This process is called “thermal stratification.” Once thermal stratification occurs, there is little mixing of the warm surface waters with the cooler bottom waters. The transition layer that separates these layers is referred to as the “thermocline.” The thermocline is characterized as the zone where temperature drops rapidly with depth. As fall approaches, the warm surface waters begin to cool and become more dense. Eventually, the surface temperature drops to a point that allows the lake to undergo complete mixing. This period is referred to as “fall turnover.” As the season progresses and ice begins to form on the lake, the lake may stratify again. However, during winter stratification, the surface waters (at or near 32°F) are underlain by slightly warmer water (about 39°F). This is sometimes referred to as “inverse stratification” and occurs because water is most dense at a temperature of about 39°F. As the lake ice melts in the spring, these stratification cycles are repeated. Shallow lakes do not stratify. Lakes that are about 15 to 30 feet deep may stratify and destratify with storm events several times during the year.

Dissolved Oxygen

An important factor influencing lake water quality is the quantity of dissolved oxygen in the water column. The major inputs of dissolved oxygen to lakes are the atmosphere and photosynthetic activity by aquatic plants. An oxygen level of about 5 mg/L (milligrams per liter, or parts per million) is required to support warm-water fish. In lakes deep enough to exhibit thermal stratification, oxygen levels are often reduced or depleted below the thermocline once the lake has stratified. This is because deep water is cut off from plant photosynthesis and the atmosphere, and oxygen is consumed by bacteria that use oxygen as they decompose organic matter (plant and animal remains) at the bottom of the lake. Bottom-water oxygen depletion is a common occurrence in eutrophic and some mesotrophic lakes. Thus, eutrophic and most mesotrophic lakes cannot support cold-water fish because the cool, deep water (that the fish require to live) does not contain sufficient oxygen.


The quantity of phosphorus present in the water column is especially important since phosphorus is the nutrient that most often controls aquatic plant growth and the rate at which a lake ages and becomes more eutrophic. In the presence of oxygen, phosphorus settles to the lake bottom and is unavailable for aquatic plant growth. However, if bottom-water oxygen is depleted, phosphorus is released from the sediments and may be available to promote aquatic plant growth. In some lakes, the release of phosphorus from the bottom sediments is the primary source of phosphorus loading (or input) to the lake. By reducing the amount of phosphorus in a lake, it may be possible to control the amount of aquatic plant growth. In general, lakes with a phosphorus concentration greater than 20 parts per billion are able to support abundant plant growth and are classified as nutrient-enriched or eutrophic.


Chlorophyll-a is a pigment that imparts the green color to plants and algae. A rough estimate of the quantity of algae present in lake water can be made by measuring the amount of chlorophyll-a in the water column. A chlorophyll-a concentration greater than 6 parts per billion is considered characteristic of a eutrophic condition.

Secchi Transparency

A Secchi disk is often used to estimate water clarity. The measurement is made by fastening a round, black and white, 8-inch disk to a calibrated line. The disk is lowered over the deepest point of the lake until it is no longer visible, and the depth is noted. The disk is then raised until it reappears. The average between these two depths is the Secchi transparency. Generally, it has been found that aquatic plants can grow at a depth of approximately twice the Secchi transparency measurement. In eutrophic lakes, water clarity is often reduced by algae growth in the water column, and Secchi disk readings of 7.5 feet or less are common.

Lake Classification Criteria

Ordinarily, as phosphorus inputs to a lake increase, the amount of algae will also increase. Thus, chlorophyll-a levels will increase and transparency decreases. A summary of lake classification criteria developed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is shown in the table below.


Lake Total Chlorophyll-a Secchi
Classification Phosphorus (µg/L)1 (µg/L)1 Transparency (feet)
Oligotrophic Less than 10 Less than 2.2 Greater than 15.0
Mesotrophic 10 to 20 2.2 to 6.0 7.5 to 15.0
Eutrophic Greater than 20 Greater than 6.0 Less than 7.5

In a recent assessment of Michigan’s lakes, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that statewide about 25% of lakes are oligotrophic, 52% are mesotrophic and 23% are eutrophic.2

Variability and Trends

Often there is a desire to evaluate trends in water quality. However, this can be a difficult task. It is important to realize that there are a number of factors that influence water quality. Weather, for example, can have a strong influence on water quality conditions. A lake sampled immediately after several days of strong winds and rain may appear much different than if sampled after several days of calm, sunny weather. There can be significant natural variability in lake water quality daily, seasonally and year-to-year. Because of this natural variability, it can be very difficult to detect subtle changes or trends that may occur in water quality over time. In fact, it may take many years of regular sampling to detect a statistically significant trend in water quality.


  1. μg/L = micrograms per liter = parts ber billion.
  2. Fuller, L.M. and C.K. Taricska 2012. Water-quality characteristics of Michigan’s inland lakes, 2001-10: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011-5233, 53 p., plus CD-ROM.).




Secchi disk