As we hear more about natural shorelines, shoreline restorations, shoreline buffers and lakescaping, many of us wonder what we should do.
We've heard that natural shores are good for the fish, birds, butterflies, frogs and turtles. We've also heard that natural shores are important to water quality and keeping our lakes clear and free of algae blooms, with phosphorus levels low enough that meet water quality standards.
Lakes differ widely in Minnesota, from large deep lakes in the northern part of the state to more shallow and fully developed lakes in southern Minnesota. Many lakes, though, are being used and developed, and that is, unfortunately, leading to declines in water quality.
The single most important thing we can do to maintain or improve water quality is to keep our shorelines natural. A 20- to 30-foot natural buffer along the water's edge will filter runoff and prevent nutrients (a cause of algae blooms) from getting into the lake. Shoreland plants absorb nutrients as they grow and native deep-rooted plants stabilize the shore to prevent erosion.
Whether you are building on an undeveloped lot, remodeling an older home or cabin or looking to improve your shore, go natural. The starting point to a natural shoreline can be as simple as this: Leave it alone. Stop mowing the lawn or removing plants from the lake.
On some developed lakes, restoring your shore can be a slow process, sometimes met with skepticism and reluctance. An example is "my" small lake in north central Minnesota. This lake has had a history of groomed sandy beaches free of all vegetation. In the last five years, there has been an increase of four-wheelers driving along the beach, which has led to almost everyone dragging their shorelines to maintain the sandy beach look.
After learning about the benefits of natural shorelines and the concern about lost habitat for frogs and other critters, I decided to go out on a limb and give a natural shore a try. I simply stopped dragging my beach. First, bulrush appeared at water's edge, then a wide variety of plants emerged from seed that had probably been dormant in the sand for 20-plus years. The first year, the plants were somewhat straggly, but the number of plant varieties that emerged was amazing.
During that first year, there were more negative comments than positive ones. But some lakeshore owners still were interested in what I was doing. In the next two years of this "no mow, let grow" project, the plants became more mature and dense and very attractive. In addition, each year presented several new varieties, with mysteries to solve.
One unique little plant took several months to identify. I had a photo, but no one could identify it. Others in the area also reported seeing this interesting little plant. Finally, a vendor at a conference identified it as a Purple Gerardia. It appears only under certain climate and water-level conditions. It had been dormant in the sand for 20-30 years. How fun is that?
Within the first year, butterflies, birds and even some frogs and turtles showed up. While the frogs and turtles didn't stay too long due to the lack of contiguous natural shorelines, it was encouraging to see that they still were out there lurking and looking to return to their home.
More people on the lake wanted to see the restoration project and learn more. They had questions about native plants. They wanted to know how to get started. They wanted to know if the plants just came up on their own or if they were planted and the cost. The Lake Association then invited speakers in from the DNR and the Extension Office to share their information. The movement was under way.
Progress can be slow on some lakes. Routine behaviors are hard to change. What we can see, however, is that on my little lake, the five to 10 properties that have had natural shorelines for some time have led to one or two new restoration projects on the lake, and the numbers are growing. With patience and persistence and good, solid information, people are going natural and hoping that this little movement will continue.
If you value your lake, take care of your shore.
LAUREL MEZNER of the MPCA may be reached at Lakewaves@dnr.state.mn.us or 828-6068.
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