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photo of duluth superior bay
that shows turbitiy

Why Is it Important?

Turbidity refers to how clear the water is. The greater the amount of total suspended solids (TSS) in the water, the murkier it appears and the higher the measured turbidity. The major source of turbidity in the open water zone of most lakes is typically phytoplankton, but closer to shore, particulates may also be clays and silts from shoreline erosion, resuspended bottom sediments (this is what turns the western arm of Lake Superior near Duluth brown on a windy day), and organic detritus from stream and/or wastewater discharges. Dredging operations, channelization, increased flow rates, floods, or even too many bottom-feeding fish (such as carp) may stir up bottom sediments and increase the cloudiness of the water.

High concentrations of particulate matter can modify light penetration, cause shallow lakes and bays to fill in faster, and smother benthic habitats - impacting both organisms and eggs. As particles of silt, clay, and other organic materials settle to the bottom, they can suffocate newly hatched larvae and fill in spaces between rocks which could have been used by aquatic organisms as habitat. Fine particulate material also can clog or damage sensitive gill structures, decrease their resistance to disease, prevent proper egg and larval development, and potentially interfere with particle feeding activities. If light penetration is reduced significantly, macrophyte growth may be decreased which would in turn impact the organisms dependent upon them for food and cover. Reduced photosynthesis can also result in a lower daytime release of oxygen into the water. Effects on phytoplankton growth are complex depending on too many factors to generalize.

Very high levels of turbidity for a short period of time may not be significant and may even be less of a problem than a lower level that persists longer. The figure below shows how aquatic organisms are generally affected.

fish trends vs. turbidity

Schematic adapted from "Turbidty: A Water Quality Measure", Water Action Volunteers, Monitoring Factsheet Series,
UW-Extension, Environmental Resources Center. It is a generic, un-calibrated impact assessment model based on Newcombe, C. P., and J. O. T. Jensen. 1996. Channel suspended sediment and fisheries: a synthesis for quantitative assessment of risk and impact. North American Journal of Fisheries Management. 16: 693-727.

Reasons for Natural Variation

Algal turbidity varies seasonally and with depth in a complex manner as discussed previously in response to physical, chemical and biological changes in the lake. Inorganic and detrital particles from the watershed vary largely in response to hydrological events such as storms and snowmelt.

Even relatively small amounts of wave action can erode exposed lakeshore sediments, in this case a minepit lake from northeastern Minnesota. Can you guess what mineral was mined here?


The major effect turbidity has on humans might be simply aesthetic - people don't like the look of dirty water. However, turbidity also adds real costs to the treatment of surface water supplies used for drinking water since the turbidity must be virtually eliminated for effective disinfection (usually by chlorine in a variety of forms) to occur. Particulates also provide attachment sites for heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead, and many toxic organic contaminants such as PCBs, PAHs and many pesticides.

Turbidity is reported by RUSS in nephelometric units (NTUs) which refers to the type of instrument (turbidimeter or nephelometer) used for estimating light scattering from suspended particulate material. Turbidity can be measured in several ways. Turbidity is most often used to estimate the TSS (total suspended solids as [mg dry weight]/L) in the lake's tributaries rather than in the lake itself unless it is subject to large influxes of sediments. For the WOW project we will attempt to develop empirical (meaning: based upon direct measurements) relationships between TSS and turbidity for each system since turbidity is easily measured and TSS analyses are not very sensitive at the typically low concentrations found in the middle of most lakes. Also, TSS is a parameter that directly relates to land uses in the watershed and is a key parameter used for modeling efforts and for assessing the success of mitigation and restoration efforts.

What in the world are Nephelometric Turbidity Units (NTU’s)?

They are the units we use when we measure Turbidity. The term Nephelometric refers to the way the instrument estimates how light is scattered by suspended particulate material in the water. The Nephelometer, also called a turbidimeter, attached to the RUSS unit has the photocell (similar to the one on your camera or your bathroom nightlight) set at 90 degrees to the direction of the light beam to estimate scattered rather than absorbed light. This measurement generally provides a very good correlation with the concentration of particles in the water that affect clarity.

In lakes and streams, there are 3 major types of particles: algae, detritus (dead organic material), and silt (inorganic, or mineral, suspended sediment). The algae grow in the water and the detritus comes from dead algae, higher plants, zooplankton, bacteria, fungi, etc. produced within the water column, and from watershed vegetation washed in to the water. Sediment comes largely from shoreline erosion and from the resuspension of bottom sediments due to wind mixing.

Usually, we measure turbidity to provide a cheap estimate of the total suspended solids or sediments (TSS) concentration (in milligrams dry weight/L). TSS measurement requires you to filter a known volume of water through a pre-weighed filter disc to collect all the suspended material (greater than about 1 micron in size) and then re-weigh it after drying it overnight at ~103°C to remove all water in the residue and filter. This is tedious and difficult to do accurately for low turbidity water - the reason why a turbidimeter is often used. Another even cheaper method is to use an inexpensive devise called a Turbidity Tube. This is a simple adaptation for streams of the Secchi disk technique for lakes. It involves looking down a tube at a black and white disk and recording how much stream water is needed to make the disk disappear.

turbidity tube

This device yields data for streams that is similar to a secchi depth measurement in lakes. As for secchi measurements are made in the shade with the sun to your back to make an accurate and reproducible reading - the shadow of the observer should be adequate.

  1. Pour sample water into the tube until the image at the bottom of the tube is no longer visible when looking directly through the water column at the image. Rotate the tube while looking down at the image to see if the black and white areas of the decal are distinguishable.
  2. Record this depth of water on your data sheet to the nearest 1 cm. Different individuals will get different values and all should be recorded, not just the average. It is a good idea to have the initials of the observer next to the value to be able identify systematic errors.
  3. If you see the image on the bottom of the tube after filling it, simply record the depth as > the depth of the tube. Then construct a longer tube, more appropriate for your stream.


Turbidity is a standard measurement in stream sampling programs where suspended sediment is an extremely important parameter to monitor. It may also be useful for estimating TSS in lakes, particularly reservoirs, since their useful lifetime depends upon how fast the main basin behind the dam fills with inflowing sediments from mainstem and tributary streams and from shoreline erosion. In the WOW lakes, direct inputs of sediments from tributaries are probably too low to significantly affect the turbidity of the water column out in the main lake. However, algal densities, particularly in the more eutrophic lakes in the Minneapolis Metro area represent enough particulate material to be easily measureable by the RUSS turbidity sensors. Although chlorophyll sensors (fluorometers) would be the best way for us to estimate algal abundance (we lack the funding at present), in these lakes the turbidity sensors provide an alternate estimate of algae.

The figures below were developed to show how both organic (algae) and inorganic (silt and sediment) particulates affect turbidity values. The first set of images show filter discs prepared by filtering identical volumes of water from Lake Independence, with their corresponding values of turbidity and chlorophyll. The second set shows another set of filters generated using a nearshore water sample from an erodible area.

turbidity due to algae
ntu's and chlorophyll levels

turbidity due to sediment
ntu's and tss levels

The experiment: Filter equal volumes of water from mid-lake and nearshore at Lake Independence through fine-mesh filters.

secchi disc

Why Is it Important?

The secchi disk depth provides an even lower "tech" method for assessing the clarity of a lake. A Secchi disk is a circular plate divided into quarters painted alternately black and white. The disk is attached to a rope and lowered into the water until it is no longer visible. Secchi disk depth, then, is a measure of water clarity. Higher Secchi readings mean more rope was let out before the disk disappeared from sight and indicates clearer water. Lower readings indicate turbid or colored water. Clear water lets light penetrate more deeply into the lake than does murky water. This light allows photosynthesis to occur and oxygen to be produced. The rule of thumb is that light can penetrate to a depth of about 2 - 3 times the Secchi disk depth.

Clarity is affected by algae, soil particles, and other materials suspended in the water. However, Secchi disk depth is primarily used as an indicator of algal abundance and general lake productivity. Although it is only an indicator, Secchi disk depth is the simplest and one of the most effective tools for estimating a lake's productivity.

Reasons for Natural Variation

Secchi disk readings vary seasonally with changes in photosynthesis and therefore, algal growth. In most lakes, Secchi disk readings begin to decrease in the spring, with warmer temperature and increased growth, and continue decreasing until algal growth peaks in the summer. As cooler weather sets in and growth decreases, Secchi disk readings increase again. (However, cooler weather often means more wind. In a shallow lake, the improved clarity from decreased algal growth may be partly offset by an increase in concentration of sediments mixed into the water column by wind.) In lakes that thermally stratify, Secchi disk readings may decrease again with fall turnover. As the surface water cools, the thermal stratification created in summer weakens and the lake mixes. The nutrients thus released from the bottom layer of water may cause a fall algae bloom and the resultant decrease in Secchi disk reading.

Rainstorms also may affect readings. Erosion from rainfall, runoff, and high stream velocities may result in higher concentrations of suspended particles in inflowing streams and therefore decreases in Secchi disk readings. On the other hand, temperature and volume of the incoming water may be sufficient to dilute the lake with cooler, clearer water and reduce algal growth rates. Both clearer water and lower growth rates would result in increased Secchi disk readings.

The natural color of the water also affects the readings. In most lakes, the impact of color may be insignificant. But some lakes are highly colored. Lakes strongly influenced by bogs, for example, are often a very dark brown and have low Secchi readings even though they may have few algae.

Expected Impact of Pollution

Pollution tends to reduce water clarity. Watershed development and poor land use practices cause increases in erosion, organic matter, and nutrients, all of which cause increases in suspended particulates and algae growth.

Secchi disk depth is usually reported in feet to the nearest tenth of a foot, or meters to the nearest tenth of a meter. Secchi disk readings can be used to determine a lake's trophic status. Though trophic status is not related to any water quality standard, it is a mechanism for "rating" a lake's productive state since unproductive lakes are usually much clearer than productive lakes.


Michaud, J.P. 1991. A citizen's guide to understanding and monitoring lakes and streams. Publ. #94-149. Washington State Dept. of Ecology, Publications Office, Olympia, WA, USA (360) 407-7472.

Moore, M.L. 1989. NALMS management guide for lakes and reservoirs. North American Lake Management Society, P.O. Box 5443, Madison, WI, 53705-5443, USA (http://www.nalms.org).


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date last updated: Thursday January 17 2008