What is the pollution limit? Comparing nutrient loads with thresholds to improve water quality in Lake Baiyangdian

Jing Yang, Maryna Strokal, Carolien Kroeze, Lin Ma*, Zhaohai Bai, Sven Teurlincx, Annette B.G. Janssen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Ecological thresholds are useful indicators for water quality managers to define limits to nutrient pollution. A common approach to estimating ecological thresholds is using critical nutrient loads. Critical nutrient loads are typically defined as the loads at which the phytoplankton chlorophyll-a exceeds a certain concentration. However, national policies, such as in China, use chemical indicators (nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations) rather than ecological indicators (phytoplankton chlorophyll-a) to assess water quality. In this study, we uniquely define the critical nutrient loads based on maximum allowable nutrient concentrations for lake Baiyangdian. We assess whether current and future nutrient loads in this lake comply with the Chinese Water Quality standards. To this end, we link two models (MARINA-Lakes and PCLake+). The PCLake+ model was applied to estimate the critical nutrient loads related to ecological thresholds for total nitrogen, total phosphorus and chlorophyll-a. The current (i.e., 2012) and future (i.e., 2050) nutrient loads were derived from the water quality MARINA-Lakes model. Nitrogen loads exceeded the nitrogen threshold in 2012. Phosphorus loads were below all ecological thresholds in 2012. Ecological thresholds are exceeded in 2050 with limited environmental policies, and urbanization may increase nutrient loads above the ecological thresholds in 2050. Recycling and reallocating animal manure is needed to avoid future water pollution in Lake Baiyangdian. Our study highlights the need for effective policies for clean water based on policy-relevant indicators.

Original languageEnglish
Article number150710
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2022


  • Ecological thresholds
  • Environmental policies
  • Nutrient pollution
  • Urbanization


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