Lake responses to reduced nutrient loading – an analysis of contemporary long-term data from 35 case studies


Erik Jeppesen, Department of Freshwater Ecology, National Environmental Research Institute, Vejlsøvej 25, DK-8600 Silkeborg, Denmark. E-mail:


1. This synthesis examines 35 long-term (5–35 years, mean: 16 years) lake re-oligotrophication studies. It covers lakes ranging from shallow (mean depth <5 m and/or polymictic) to deep (mean depth up to 177 m), oligotrophic to hypertrophic (summer mean total phosphorus concentration from 7.5 to 3500 μg L−1 before loading reduction), subtropical to temperate (latitude: 28–65°), and lowland to upland (altitude: 0–481 m). Shallow north-temperate lakes were most abundant.

2. Reduction of external total phosphorus (TP) loading resulted in lower in-lake TP concentration, lower chlorophyll a (chl a) concentration and higher Secchi depth in most lakes. Internal loading delayed the recovery, but in most lakes a new equilibrium for TP was reached after 10–15 years, which was only marginally influenced by the hydraulic retention time of the lakes. With decreasing TP concentration, the concentration of soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) also declined substantially.

3. Decreases (if any) in total nitrogen (TN) loading were lower than for TP in most lakes. As a result, the TN : TP ratio in lake water increased in 80% of the lakes. In lakes where the TN loading was reduced, the annual mean in-lake TN concentration responded rapidly. Concentrations largely followed predictions derived from an empirical model developed earlier for Danish lakes, which includes external TN loading, hydraulic retention time and mean depth as explanatory variables.

4. Phytoplankton clearly responded to reduced nutrient loading, mainly reflecting declining TP concentrations. Declines in phytoplankton biomass were accompanied by shifts in community structure. In deep lakes, chrysophytes and dinophytes assumed greater importance at the expense of cyanobacteria. Diatoms, cryptophytes and chrysophytes became more dominant in shallow lakes, while no significant change was seen for cyanobacteria.

5. The observed declines in phytoplankton biomass and chl a may have been further augmented by enhanced zooplankton grazing, as indicated by increases in the zooplankton : phytoplankton biomass ratio and declines in the chl a : TP ratio at a summer mean TP concentration of <100–150 μg L−1. This effect was strongest in shallow lakes. This implies potentially higher rates of zooplankton grazing and may be ascribed to the observed large changes in fish community structure and biomass with decreasing TP contribution. In 82% of the lakes for which data on fish are available, fish biomass declined with TP. The percentage of piscivores increased in 80% of those lakes and often a shift occurred towards dominance by fish species characteristic of less eutrophic waters.

6. Data on macrophytes were available only for a small subsample of lakes. In several of those lakes, abundance, coverage, plant volume inhabited or depth distribution of submerged macrophytes increased during oligotrophication, but in others no changes were observed despite greater water clarity.

7. Recovery of lakes after nutrient loading reduction may be confounded by concomitant environmental changes such as global warming. However, effects of global change are likely to run counter to reductions in nutrient loading rather than reinforcing re-oligotrophication.