A Secchi disk is an 8-inch (20 cm) disk with alternating black and white quadrants. It is lowered into the water of a lake until it can no longer be seen by the observer. This depth of disappearance, called the Secchi depth, is a measure of the transparency of the water.
Transparency can be affected by the color of the water, algae, and suspended sediments. Transparency decreases as color, suspended sediments, or algal abundance increases. Water is often stained yellow or brown by decaying plant matter. In bogs and some lakes the brown stain can make the water the color of strong tea. Algae are small, green aquatic plants whose abundance is related to the amount of plant nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen. Transparency can therefore be affected by the amount of plant nutrients coming into the lake from sources such as sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, and lawn and agricultural fertilizer. Suspended sediments often come from sources such as resuspension from the lake bottom, construction sites, agricultural fields, and urban storm runoff.
Transparency is an indicator of the impact of human activity on the land surrounding the lake. If transparency is measured through the season and from year to year, trends in transparency may be observed. Transparency can serve as an early warning that activities on the land are having an effect on a lake.