Butternut Lake is a 393-hectare, eutrophic to hypereutrophic lake in northcentral Wisconsin. After only minor improvements in water quality were observed following several actions taken to reduce the nutrient inputs to the lake, a detailed study was conducted from 2002 to 2007 by the U.S. Geological Survey to better understand how the lake functions. The goals of this study were to describe the water quality and hydrology of the lake, quantify external and internal sources of phosphorus, and determine the effects of past and future changes in phosphorus inputs on the water quality of the lake.
Since the early 1970s, the water quality of Butternut Lake has changed little in response to nutrient reductions from the watershed. The largest changes were in near-surface total phosphorus concentrations: August concentrations decreased from about 0.09 milligrams per liter (mg/L) to about 0.05 mg/L, but average summer concentrations decreased only from about 0.055-0.060 mg/L to about 0.045 mg/L. Since the early 1970s, only small changes were observed in chlorophyll a concentrations and water clarity (Secchi depths).
All major water and phosphorus sources, including the internal release of phosphorus from the sediments (internal loading), were measured directly, and minor sources were estimated to construct detailed water and phosphorus budgets for the lake during monitoring years (MY) 2003 and 2004. During these years, Butternut Creek, Spiller Creek, direct precipitation, small tributaries and near-lake drainage area, and ground water contributed about 62, 20, 8, 7, and 3 percent of the inflow, respectively. The average annual load of phosphorus to the lake was 2,540 kilograms (kg), of which 1,590 kg came from external sources (63 percent) and 945 kg came from the sediments in the lake (37 percent). Of the total external sources, Butternut Creek, Spiller Creek, small tributaries and near-lake drainage area, septic systems, precipitation, and ground water contributed about 63, 23, 9, 3, 1, and 1 percent, respectively.
Because of the high internal phosphorus loading, the eutrophication models used in this study were unable to simulate the observed water-quality characteristics in the lake without incorporating this source of phosphorus. However, when internal loading of phosphorus was added to the BATHTUB model, it accurately simulated the average water-quality characteristics measured in MY 2003 and 2004. Model simulations demonstrated a relatively linear response between in-lake total phosphorus concentrations and external phosphorus loading; however, the changes in concentrations were smaller than the changes in external phosphorus loadings (about 25-40 percent of the change in phosphorus loading). Changes in chlorophyll a concentrations, the percentage of days with algal blooms, and Secchi depths were nonlinear and had a greater response to reductions in phosphorus loading than to increases in phosphorus loading. A 50-percent reduction in external phosphorus loading caused an 18-percent decrease in chlorophyll a concentrations, a 41-percent decrease in the percentage of days with algal blooms, and a 12-percent increase in Secchi depth. When the additional internal phosphorus loading was removed from model simulations, all of these constituents showed a much greater response to changes in external phosphorus loading.
Because of Butternut Lake's morphometry, it is polymictic, which means it mixes frequently and does not develop stable thermal stratification throughout the summer. This characteristic makes it more vulnerable than dimictic lakes, which mix in spring and fall and develop stable thermal stratification during summer, to the high internal phosphorus loading that has resulted from historically high, nonnatural, external phosphorus loading. In polymictic lakes, the phosphorus released from the sediments is mixed into the upper part of the lake throughout summer. Once Butternut Lake became hypereutrophic (very p