Relations of biological indicators to nutrient data for lakes and streams in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, 1990-98

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2003-4033
Prepared in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
By:  and 



The Clean Water Action Plan of 1998 provides a blueprint for federal agencies to work with states, tribes, and other stakeholders to protect and restore the Nation's water resources. The plan includes an initiative that addresses the nutrient-enrichment problem of lakes and streams across the United States. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) is working to set nutrient criteria by nationwide nutrient ecoregions that are an aggregation of the Omernik level III ecoregions. Because low levels of nutrients are necessary for healthy streams and elevated concentrations can cause algal blooms that deplete available oxygen and kill off aquatic organisms, criteria levels are to be set, in part, using the relation between chlorophyll a and concentrations of total nitrogen and total phosphorus.

Data from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, collected between 1990 and 1998, were analyzed for relations between chlorophyll a, nutrients, and other explanatory variables. Both phytoplankton and periphyton chlorophyll a concentrations from lakes and streams were analyzed separately within each of the USEPA nutrient ecoregions located within the boundaries of the two states. These four nutrient ecoregions are VII (Mostly Glaciated Dairy), VIII (Nutrient Poor, Largely Glaciated Upper Midwest and Northeast), IX (Southeastern Temperate Forested Plains and Hills), and XI (Central and Eastern Forested Uplands).

Phytoplankton chlorophyll a concentrations in lakes were related to total nitrogen, total phosphorus, Secchi depth, concentration of dissolved oxygen, pH, water temperature, and specific conductivity. In nutrient ecoregion VII, nutrients were not significant predictors of chlorophyll a concentrations. Total nitrogen, Secchi depth, and pH were significantly related to phytoplankton chlorophyll a concentrations in nutrient ecoregion IX. Lake periphyton chlorophyll a concentrations from nutrient ecoregion XI were related to total phosphorus rather than total nitrogen, Secchi depth, and pH. In all cases, Secchi depth was inversely related to the chlorophyll a concentrations in a lake. Nutrient ecoregion VIII had too few samples for any type of analysis.

Streams within the different nutrient ecoregions had many variables that were significantly related to periphyton chlorophyll a concentrations. These variables consisted of total nitrogen, total phosphorus, drainage area, percent forest cover, several macroinvertebrate indices, pH, basin slope, total residue, total suspended solids, and water temperature. Nutrients were not significantly related to periphyton chlorophyll a in streams within nutrient ecoregions VII or IX but were in nutrient ecoregion XI. Drainage area, percent forest cover, and several invertebrate indices were significant variables in nutrient ecoregion VII. Percent forest cover and several invertebrate indices had a negative relation with chlorophyll a concentrations in these streams. Percent forest cover and basin slope had a negative effect on periphyton in nutrient ecoregion IX streams. Light availability was more critical to periphyton growth in streams than nutrients.

Ecoregion XI had enough samples to do seasonal analyses. Summer-season periphyton chlorophyll a concentrations in nutrient ecoregion XI streams were positively related to total phosphorus and drainage area but negatively related to percent forest cover. Summer-season phytoplankton in streams was related to different variables within the same nutrient ecoregion. Both total nitrogen and total phosphorus were positively related with chlorophyll a concentrations as well as basin slope, total residue, and total suspended solids but negatively related to pH. The winter stream phytoplankton chlorophyll a concentrations were related to water temperature only.

Suggested Citation

Brightbill, R.A., and Koerkle, E.H., 2003, Relations of biological indicators to nutrient data for lakes and streams in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, 1990-98: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 2003–4033, 67 p.,

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Approach
  • Relations among chlorophyll a, nutrients, other water-quality characteristics, and habitat and macroinvertebrate indices
  • Ecological indicators of nutrient enrichment 
  • Considerations for future research
  • Summary
  • References cited
  • Appendix—Laboratory methods used by different governmental agencies
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Relations of biological indicators to nutrient data for lakes and streams in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, 1990-98
Series title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number 2003-4033
DOI 10.3133/wri034033
Year Published 2003
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s) Pennsylvania Water Science Center
Description viii, 67 p.
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details