How nutrient retention and TN:TP ratios depend on ecosystem state in thousands of Chinese lakes

Dianneke van Wijk* (Corresponding author), Jan H. Janse, Mengru Wang, Carolien Kroeze, Wolf M. Mooij, Annette B.G. Janssen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review


Worldwide, anthropogenic activities threaten surface water quality by aggravating eutrophication and increasing total nitrogen to total phosphorus (TN:TP) ratios. In hydrologically connected systems, water quality management may benefit from in-ecosystem nutrient retention by preventing nutrient transport to downstream systems. However, nutrient retention may also alter TN:TP ratios with unforeseen consequences for downstream water quality. Here, we aim to increase understanding of how nutrient retention may influence nutrient transport to downstream systems to improve long-term water quality management. We analyzed lake ecosystem state, in-lake nutrient retention, and nutrient transport (ratios) for 3482 Chinese lakes using the lake process-based ecosystem model PCLake+. We compared a low climate change and sustainability-, and a high climate change and economy-focused scenario for 2050 against 2012. In both scenarios, the effect of nutrient input reduction outweighs that of temperature rise, resulting in more lakes with good ecological water quality (i.e., macrophyte-dominated) than in 2012. Generally, the sustainability-focused scenario shows a more promising future for water quality than the economy-focused scenario. Nevertheless, most lakes remain phytoplankton-dominated. The shift to more macrophyte-dominated lakes in 2050 is accompanied by higher nutrient retention fractions and less nutrient transport to downstream waterbodies. In-lake nutrient retention also alters the water's TN:TP ratio, depending on the inflow TN:TP ratio and the ecosystem state. In 2050 higher TN:TP ratios are expected in the outflows of lakes than in 2012, especially for the sustainability-focused scenario with strong TP loading reduction. However, the downstream impact of increased TN:TP ratios depends on actual nutrient loadings and the limiting nutrient in the receiving system. We conclude that nutrient input reductions, improved water quality, higher in-lake nutrient retention fractions, and lower nutrient transport to downstream waterbodies go hand in hand. Therefore, water quality management could benefit even more from nutrient pollution reduction than one would expect at first sight.
Original languageEnglish
Article number170690
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date08 Feb 2024
Publication statusPublished - 25 Mar 2024


  • Climate change
  • Downstream impacts
  • Modeling
  • Socio-economic development
  • Water quality


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