Elkhart Lake, Sheboygan River Watershed (SH03)
Elkhart Lake, Sheboygan River Watershed (SH03)
Elkhart Lake (59300)
291.60 Acres
Natural Community
Natural communities (stream and lake natural communities) represent model results that use predicted flow and temperature based on landscape features and related assumptions. Ranges of flow and temperature associated with specific aquatic life communities (fish, macroinvertebrates) help biologists identify appropriate resource management goals. Wisconsin Natural Communities.
Year Last Monitored
This is the most recent date of monitoring data stored in SWIMS. Additional surveys for fish and habitat may be available subsequent to this date.
This lake is impaired
Mercury Contaminated Fish Tissue
Trout Water 
Trout Waters are represented by Class I, Class II or Class III waters. These classes have specific ecological characteristics and management actions associated with them. For more information regarding Trout Classifications, see the Fisheries Trout Class Webpages.
Outstanding or Exceptional 
Wisconsin has designated many of the state's highest quality waters as Outstanding Resource Waters (ORWs) or Exceptional Resource Waters (ERWs). Waters designated as ORW or ERW are surface waters which provide outstanding recreational opportunities, support valuable fisheries and wildlife habitat, have good water quality, and are not significantly impacted by human activities. ORW and ERW status identifies waters that the State of Wisconsin has determined warrant additional protection from the effects of pollution. These designations are intended to meet federal Clean Water Act obligations requiring Wisconsin to adopt an 'antidegradation' policy that is designed to prevent any lowering of water quality - especially in those waters having significant ecological or cultural value.
Impaired Water 
A water is polluted or 'impaired' if it does not support full use by humans, wildlife, fish and other aquatic life and it is shown that one or more of the pollutant criteria are not met.

Fish and Aquatic Life

Current Use
The use the water currently supports. This is not a designation or classification; it is based on the current condition of the water. Information in this column is not designed for, and should not be used for, regulatory purposes.
Shallow headwater lake describes the depth and location of the lake in a watershed. These variables affect the lakes response to watershed variables.
Attainable Use
The use that the investigator believes the water could achieve through managing "controllable" sources. Beaver dams, hydroelectric dams, low gradient streams, and naturally occurring low flows are generally not considered controllable. The attainable use may be the same as the current use or it may be higher.
Supported Aquatic Life
Waters that support fish and aquatic life communities (healthy biological communities).
Designated Use
This is the water classification legally recognized by NR102 and NR104, Wis. Adm. Code. The classification determines water quality criteria and effluent limits. Waters obtain designated uses through classification procedures.
Default FAL
Fish and Aquatic Life - Default Waters do not have a specific use designation subcategory but are considered fishable, swimmable waters.


T16N, R21E, Section 29, 30; MWBIC - 0059300, Sheboygan County, Sheboygan River Watershed
Surface Acres = 300, S.D.F. = 1.83, Maximum Depth = 113 feet

At 300 acres, Elkhart Lake is the largest kettle moraine lake in Sheboygan County and the fourth deepest natural lake in the state. A fair sized, submerged island separates the lake into two major basins. A fixed crested weir at the outlet maintains the water level of the lake. The greatest attraction of the lake is its clear water, which provides excellent swimming, boating, water skiing, and aesthetic enjoyment. Septic tank seepage and isolated surface runoff from adjacent cropland and farm operations has resulted in gradual increases in nutrients in the Lake. These sources could trigger major use problems in the future if control efforts are not expanded.

A two-story fishery exists in Elkhart Lake with the presence of both warmwater and coldwater fish (trout) species. Walleye, panfish, and smallmouth bass, are the mainstays of the fishery. This lake is well known for producing trophy size walleye and northern pike. True muskellunge were introduced in 1987 and are growing at an extremely fast rate due to an abundant forage base. Efforts are underway to increase the amount of fish cover in the lake. In August 1994, Elkhart Lake became the second inland lake in Wisconsin to become infested with zebra mussels. A launch site adjacent to the outlet currently provides public access. Parking is adequate and toilet facilities are provided.

In 1987, the Sheboygan River was selected as a Priority Watershed Project. As a part of this project the land uses and polluted runoff loading to Big Elkhart Lake were inventoried by the Sheboygan County Land Conservation Department. The appraisal report and recommendations for the Big Elkhart Lake area are summarized in the Sheboygan River Priority Watershed Report (WDNR 1993).

A nutrient and water budget sponsored by the Elkhart Lake Improvement Association, and moneys obtained from the DNR through the Wisconsin Lake Management Planning Grant Program, has been completed for the lake by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the U.S. Geological Survey (Edgington et al. 1996). It is recommended that a detailed fishery survey be conducted to determine the community structure of the fishery. This is recommended since the existing zebra mussel study is not going to be evaluating this portion of the food chain and additional information on the fish community structure on Big Elkhart Lake would augment that study. It is also recommended that the general water quality condition of the lake be evaluated on a recurring basis. Water use objectives are also found in the Nonpoint Source Control Plan for the Sheboygan River Priority Watershed Project, (WDNR 1993). The water resource objectives for this lake need to be reevaluated in light of the modeling results that are being completed by the Center for Great Lake Studies and the discovery of the zebra mussel in the lake. These two elements will guide and influence the future of Big Elkhart Lake.

Aquatic Plants

The aquatic plant community in Big Elkhart Lake can best be described as sparse. In addition to the field survey conducted in 1994 aerial photographs of the lake were taken in 1993 to assist in the development of a Eurasian Water milfoil (EWM) control program for the Big Elkhart Lake Property Owners Association. The photographs from the aerial survey are archived in the Big Elkhart Lake file in the Southeast District headquarters, a duplicate set was given to the Proper Owners Association.

Date  2001

Author   Aquatic Biologist


Eurasian Water milfoil was present in approximately 15 locations around the lake in 1993. There were 3 areas with EWM in 1994. There appeared to be a significant decrease in the overall plant growth in Big Elkhart Lake in 1994 compared to 1993, which was substantiated by conversations with local residents. Table 43 lists the species present during the general survey.

Table 33. Aquatic plants in Big Elkhart Lake Sheboygan Co., 1994.
Common Name Scientific Name
Musk Grass
Richardson Pondweed
Sago Pondweed

Eurasian Watermilfoil
White Water Lily Chara sp.
Potamogeton sp.
Potamogeton richardsonii
Eleocharis sp.
Potamogeton pectinatus

Myriophyllym spicatum
Ceratophyllum demersum
Nymphaea sp.

Water Quality

The water quality of Big Elkhart Lake was monitored once in May and again in September during 1994. Temperature and dissolved oxygen profiles were made in the northern basin in May and the southern basin in September. The temperature in September shows a normal thermal profile with a 16-degree stratification factor. The dissolved oxygen profile can be characterized as a typical clinograde profile except it has a dissolved oxygen peak in the metalimnion. This dissolved oxygen peak is very strong and has been documented during other limnological surveys of the lake. The dissolved oxygen in the metalimnion has been measured to be greater than 20 ppm during earlier surveys. The lake is well stratified by September with a thermocline at a depth of approximately 35 feet. The hypolimnion was anoxic at a depth of 60 feet, and there was greater than 5 ppm dissolved oxygen to a depth of 45 feet (Wakeman 1996).

During water quality surveys conducted in 1994, the pH, specific conductance and total dissolved solids were 8.4 su, 470 (mS/cm), and 0.201 (g/l) respectively, at the surface in September. At the thermocline the same parameters were 8.1 su, 495 (mS/cm), and 0.317 (g/l) respectively. At 115 feet, the pH was 7.2 su, specific conductance was 549 (mS/cm) and total dissolved solids were 0.351 (g/l).

Trophic Status Index

The trophic status index for Big Elkhart Lake indicates a seasonally variable trend. Within one year the trophic status can go from Eu-Mesotrophic to Meso-Oligotrophic as indicated in Figure 13. The spatial distribution of primary producers in the lake results in an underestimation of productivity by conventional trophic status indices. It is believed that the spring Trophic Status Index is an accurate measure at that time however the summer values significantly underestimate the productivity of the lake.

Date  2001

Author   Aquatic Biologist

Historical Description

Source: 1968, Surface Water Resources of Sheboygan County

(Big) Elkhart Lake T16N, R21E, Section 29, 30
Surface Acres = 300, S.D.F. = 1.83, Maximum Depth = 113 feet
The largest, kettle moraine lake in the county, fourth deepest lake
in the state. A fair sized, submerged island separates the lake into two
major basins. The greatest attraction of the lake is its clear waters,
which provides excellent swimming, boating, water-skiing, and esthetic
enjoyment. Gradual increases in fertility entering the lake in the form
of septic tank seepage, and some isolated surface runoff from adjacent
cropland and farm operations, could trigger major use problems in the
future, if control efforts are not expanded. The presence of 4 resorts,
132 dwellings, and 1 public boat access site with parking, and two
beaches, confirms the lake's attributes. Walleyes, panfish, and
smallmouth bass, are the mainstay of the fishery. Splake were
experimentally planted in 1965 and 1967 to help diversify the fishery.

Date  1968

Author   Surface Water Inventory Of Wisconsin

Elkhart Lake, Sheboygan River Watershed (SH03) Fish and Aquatic LifeElkhart Lake, Sheboygan River Watershed (SH03) RecreationElkhart Lake, Sheboygan River Watershed (SH03) Fish Consumption

Impaired Waters

Elkhart Lake (59300) was placed on the impaired waters list for Mercury in fish tissue in 1998. This water was assessed during the 2016 listing cycle; total phosphorus and chlorophyll sample data were clearly below 2016 WisCALM listing thresholds for the Recreation use and Fish and Aquatic Life use. This lake is considered impaired for Fish Consumption use and meeting REC and FAL uses.

Date  2015

Author  Aaron Larson


Wisconsin has over 84,000 miles of streams, 15,000 lakes and milllions of acres of wetlands. Assessing the condition of this vast amount of water is challenging. The state's water monitoring program uses a media-based, cross-program approach to analyze water condition. An updated monitoring strategy (2015-2020) is now available. Compliance with Clean Water Act fishable, swimmable standards are located in the Executive Summary of Water Condition in 2018. See also the 'monitoring and projects' tab.


Management Goals

Wisconsin's Water Quality Standards provide qualitative and quantitative goals for waters that are protective of Fishable, Swimmable conditions [Learn more]. Waters that do not meet water quality standards are considered impaired and restoration actions are planned and carried out until the water is once again fishable and swimmable

Management goals can include creation or implementation of a Total Maximum Daily Load analysis, a Nine Key Element Plan, or other restoration work, education and outreach and more. If specific recommendations exist for this water, they will be displayed below online.


Monitoring the condition of a river, stream, or lake includes gathering physical, chemical, biological, and habitat data. Comprehensive studies often gather all these parameters in great detail, while lighter assessment events will involve sampling physical, chemical and biological data such as macroinvertebrates. Aquatic macroinvertebrates and fish communities integrate watershed or catchment condition, providing great insight into overall ecosystem health. Chemical and habitat parameters tell researchers more about human induced problems including contaminated runoff, point source dischargers, or habitat issues that foster or limit the potential of aquatic communities to thrive in a given area. Wisconsin's Water Monitoring Strategy was recenty updated.

Grants and Management Projects

Monitoring Projects

Watershed Characteristics

Elkhart Lake is located in the Sheboygan River watershed which is 260.12 miĀ². Land use in the watershed is primarily agricultural (47.30%), grassland (17.60%) and a mix of wetland (16.70%) and other uses (18.30%). This watershed has 340.24 stream miles, 4,345.33 lake acres and 27,968.05 wetland acres.

Nonpoint Source Characteristics

This watershed is ranked Not Available for runoff impacts on streams, Not Available for runoff impacts on lakes and High for runoff impacts on groundwater and therefore has an overall rank of High. This value can be used in ranking the watershed or individual waterbodies for grant funding under state and county programs.However, all waters are affected by diffuse pollutant sources regardless of initial water quality. Applications for specific runoff projects under state or county grant programs may be pursued. For more information, go to surface water program grants.

Natural Community

Elkhart Lake is considered a Two-Story under the state's Natural Community Determinations.

Natural communities (stream and lake natural communities) represent model results and DNR staff valiation processes that confirm or update predicted conditions based on flow and temperature modeling from historic and current landscape features and related variables. Predicated flow and temperatures for waters are associated predicated fish assemblages (communities). Biologists evaluate the model results against current survey data to determine if the modeled results are corect and whether biological indicators show water quaity degradation. This analysis is a core component of the state's resource management framework. Wisconsin's Riverine Natural Communities.

Shallow headwater lake describes the depth and location of the lake in a watershed. These variables affect the lakes response to watershed variables.