Use of biological indicators in TMDL assessment and implementation

Gene Yagow, Bruce Wilson, Puneet Srivastava, Christopher C. Obropta

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Most states in the U.S. have a general water quality standard intended to protect waterfront all potential pollutants not specifically named or identified in other standards. Biological indicators are used, in part, to assess the level of water quality with respect to this general standard. Under EPA's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program, impaired waters based on a biological assessment require an additional step compared with non-biological TMDLs. In non-biological TMDLs, the "pollutant" is typically the parameter being monitored, with a direct link to the impairment. In biological TMDLs, cause and effect must first be established between one or more pollutants and the impacted biological community. This article presents examples of approaches taken in different states to monitor and assess the biological health of our streams based on varying combinations of algal, macroinvertebrate, and fish communities. While fish are the ultimate integrator of lower ecological organisms, their occurrence and abundance has been greatly manipulated by humankind. Periphytic algae are perhaps the fastest responding biological population and can be used for some pollutant-specific diagnoses, but most states lack the expertise required for detailed taxonomic classification. Macroinvertebrates, the most commonly monitored biological community, are abundant in most streams, but most metrics are not diagnostic of specific stressors. Within the TMDL framework, issues are discussed related to setting TMDL targets, linking biological impairments with pollutants, and defining biological target endpoints. Although surrogate measures are often used for setting TMDL target loads, biological recovery is measured against biological endpoints. The use of biological indicators for assessment and development of biological TMDLs can be improved through modeling procedures that better define cause-and-effect relationships, through a better understanding of the limits of restoration, and through a more unified national policy that focuses on restoration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1023-1032
Number of pages10
JournalTransactions of the ASABE
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2006


  • Algae
  • Benthic macroinvertebrates
  • Bioassessment
  • Biological indicator
  • Fish
  • Periphyton
  • Stressor analysis
  • TMDL
  • Water quality
  • Watershed


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