A Delicate Balance

Understanding water quality problems in lakes and ponds

By Angela Hopko

pond or lake ecosystem is a delicate balance that can be easily upset, causing water quality problems. Understanding the components of this balance is the best way to find a solution to these problems.

From a lake manager's perspective, the most significant factors are light and temperature, nutrients, and oxygen.

Light and temperature

Sunlight is of major significance to lake dynamics as it's the primary source of energy. Most of the energy that controls the metabolism of a lake comes directly from the solar energy utilized in photosynthesis. Photosynthesis will occur only in the upper layer of the pond, or euphotic zone. This is the area in the water column that sunlight is able to penetrate.

Shallow bodies of water—less than 9 feet deep—more commonly experience problems such as bottom-rooted weeds or benthic algae. Because of this, these need additional consideration when determining the correct water management solution.

Thermal stratification, or temperature layering, impacts water quality in a lake due to its effect on dissolved oxygen levels, the way we measure how water holds oxygen.

As the sun shines on a pond, it warms the surface water. This water becomes lighter than the cooler, denser waters trapped at the pond's bottom. As a result, the water becomes stratified, or separated into layers that do not mix with each other. This area is called the thermocline or metalimnion, and can act as a physical barrier preventing any vertical mixing in the lake. This encourages algae growth throughout the warm surface waters.

As water temperature increases, the water's capacity to hold oxygen decreases. Water at 52 degrees can hold over 40 percent more oxygen than water at 80 degrees.


The second essential factor is the impact of nutrients on the aquatic ecosystem.

There is a direct correlation between the level of available nutrients and the populations of algae and aquatic weeds. Phosphorus has been identified as the single greatest contributor to aquatic plant growth, for example. One gram of phosphorous will produce 100 grams of algal biomass.

The three most common sources of nutrient introduction are bottom silt and dead vegetation in the lake, runoff water from surrounding turf areas, and the sources of incoming water.

Bottom Silt and Vegetation: Vegetative life in the lake and sediment at the lake bottom are the primary sources of nutrients. Although they only have a two-week life cycle, blue-green algae can experience cell division and double their population as often as every 20 minutes. At the end of the cycle, the plants simply die and begin to sink to the lake's bottom, or benthic zone.

Studies at the University of Florida indicate that sediment can accumulate at a rate of 1 to 5 inches per year in temperate climates, and at a rate of 3 to 8 inches per year in tropical climates. At a midpoint accumulation rate of 3 inches per year, a 1-surface-acre lake will lose 80,000 gallons of water storage capacity in a single year.

Runoff: The second most common source of nutrients is runoff from surrounding turf areas as well as roads, farms and other outlying areas. The U.S. Golf Association (USGA) reports that up to 4 percent of the fertilizers applied to areas adjacent to ponds and lakes may eventually run off into the lakes. This runoff of fertilizers into lakes is known as nutrient loading. Leaves, grass clippings and other materials will also run off into the lakes, placing additional burdens on natural cleanup processes.

Incoming Water Source: Nutrient is also added to lakes and ponds through inlet waters. This inlet water can come from effluent sewage, wastewater treatment plants and leeching from septic systems. Inlet waters often have minimal oxygen and are loaded with phosphorus. An indication of excess phosphorus is foaming water.


The third essential factor in lake water quality is the role oxygen plays.

Oxygen is important to all forms of life in the lake, and supports the food chain including the natural decomposition process. A lake is supplied with oxygen from several sources, but primarily through photosynthesis, and wave and wind action.

Immediate reactions to oxygen depletion would be fish kills or odors. Long-term issues include nutrient buildup, sludge accumulation and a chemical imbalance. Oxygen depletion or stress situations occur for different reasons, but most typically happen:

  • Late at night and just before dawn
  • On cloudy and still days
  • On hot and humid days
  • When the lake's nutrient content is high
  • After a chemical application

Nature has provided a cleanup process that will metabolize or decompose excess nutrients. This is called organic digestion. This involves two types of naturally occurring bacteria present in all lakes and ponds: aerobic and anaerobic.

The most effective of these bacteria are aerobic bacteria, which only live in the presence of oxygen. Highly efficient, they are roughly seven times faster in organic digestion than anaerobic bacteria.

Anaerobic bacteria exist in oxygen-deficient pond water and soil, are much slower in breaking down nutrients and allow soluble organic nutrients to recycle into the water column. Noxious byproducts such as methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide are created by anaerobic decomposition.

Find your balance

Balance is critical to the aquatic ecosystem. Without it, your pond or lake will suffer.

There are many steps that can prevent an imbalance, and knowing the causes will assist in determining the best solution for your application. Some methods include proper pond construction, chemical applications and the addition of oxygen through aeration systems and devices.


Angela Hopko is marketing manager for Otterbine Barebo Inc., a leader in pond and lake management for more than 50 years. Otterbine takes a scientific approach to develop natural, energy-efficient, versatile, technologically advanced and easy-to-use water treatment methods. For more information, visit www.otterbine.com.

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