Watershed vs. within-lake drivers of nitrogen: Phosphorus dynamics in shallow lakes: Phosphorus

Luke J. Ginger, Kyle D. Zimmer, Brian R. Herwig, Mark A. Hanson, William O. Hobbs, Gaston E. Small, James B. Cotner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Research on lake eutrophication often identifies variables affecting amounts of phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) in lakes, but understanding factors influencing N:P ratios is important given its influence on species composition and toxin production by cyanobacteria. We sampled 80 shallow lakes in Minnesota (USA) for three years to assess effects of watershed size, proportion of watershed as both row crop and natural area, fish biomass, and lake alternative state (turbid vs. clear) on total N: total P (TN: TP), ammonium, total dissolved phosphorus (TDP), and seston stoichiometry. We also examined N:P stoichiometry in 20 additional lakes that shifted states during the study. Last, we assessed the importance of denitrification by measuring denitrification rates in sediment cores from a subset of 34 lakes, and by measuring seston δ15N in four additional experimental lakes before and after they were experimentally manipulated from turbid to clear states. Results showed alternative state had the largest influence on overall N:P stoichiometry in these systems, as it had the strongest relationship with TN: TP, seston C:N:P, ammonium, and TDP. Turbid lakes had higher N at given levels of P than clear lakes, with TN and ammonium 2-fold and 1.4-fold higher in turbid lakes, respectively. In lakes that shifted states, TN was 3-fold higher in turbid lakes, while TP was only 2-fold higher, supporting the notion N is more responsive to state shifts than is P. Seston δ15N increased after lakes shifted to clear states, suggesting higher denitrification rates may be important for reducing N levels in clear states, and potential denitrification rates in sediment cores were among the highest recorded in the literature. Overall, our results indicate lake state was a primary driver of N:P dynamics in shallow lakes, and lakes in clear states had much lower N at a given level of P relative to turbid lakes, likely due to higher denitrification rates. Shallow lakes are often managed for the clear-water state due to increased value as wildlife habitat. However, our results indicate lake state also influences N biogeochemistry, such that managing shallow lakes for the clear-water state may also mitigate excess N levels at a landscape scale.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2155-2169
Number of pages15
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank all the undergraduate assistants for their help with this project. Todd Call and Nicky Hansel-Welch (MN DNR) helped find study sites and assisted with the rotenone application. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (DEB-0919095; DEB-0919070; DEB-0918753), the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) (Award M.L. 2010, Chap. 362, Sec. 2, Subd. 5g), and the University of St Thomas.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 by the Ecological Society of America.


  • N:P ratio
  • alternative stable states
  • denitrification
  • eutrophication
  • nutrient limitation
  • nutrient stoichiometry


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