Abstract The need for scientifically based management of lakes, as key water resources, requires the establishment of quantitative relationships between in-lake processes responsible for water quality (WQ) and the intensity of major management measures (MM, e.g. nutrient loading). In this paper, we estimate the impact of potential changes in nutrient loading on the Lake Kinneret ecosystem. Following validation of the model against a comprehensive dataset, we applied an approach that goes beyond scenario testing by linking the lake ecosystem model DYRESM–CAEDYM with a set of ecosystem variables included in a pre-assessed system of water quality indices. The emergent properties of the ecosystem predicted from the model simulations were also compared with lake data as a form of indirect validation of the model. Model output, in good agreement with lake data, indicated differential effects of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient loading on concentrations, and major in-lake fluxes, of TN and TP, and dynamics and algal community structure. Both model output and lake data indicated a strong relationship between nitrogen loading and in-lake TN values. This relationship is not apparent for phosphorus and only a weak relationship exists between phosphorus loading and in-lake TP. The modeling results, expressed in terms of water quality, allowed establishment of critical/threshold values for the nutrient loads. Implementation of the ecological modeling supplemented with the quantified set of WQ indices allowed us to take a step towards establishment of the association between permissible ranges for water quality and major management measures, i.e. towards sustainable management.