Momentum Builds for Better
WRITTEN BY MICHAEL RAHN
MINNESOTANS ARE NOT UNIQUE IN OUR LOVE OF WATER, and for the places where it flows, laps gently, or crashes mightily against shoreline boundaries. But few are more ardent than a Minnesotan in that love. It’s evident in the weekend traffic that clogs our byways leading away from cities and towns, bound for destinations on or near the state’s rivers and 11,842 lakes (our understated “10,000 Lakes” license plate legend notwithstanding).
Rewards in this love affair differ, just as Minnesotans do. Watercraft pulled behind and lashed atop our vehicles tell much of the story. Fishing boats, pontoons, sailboats, ski boats, jet-skis, canoes, kayaks, each has its own appeal and devotees. The rewards are more than just the recreations these represent, and include peace and spiritual relief from lives of pressure and urgency. Simplicity, too; lounging in a beach chair reading a book can fill the bill nicely.
Often unrecognized, but central to the pleasure in these escapes, is water quality. Thriving fish populations, waters free of algae blooms, fish kills, and toxic chemicals, and a rich diversity of wildlife to be seen and enjoyed, all depend on what happens where land and water meet.
“What happens” along these boundaries can be beneficial or harmful, depending on the choices we make. Healthy shoreland slows runoff, and allows rain to percolate down through soils, to be purified and to recharge underwater aquifers. This in turn helps maintain water levels in rivers, streams, and wetlands, and—no small thing—is vital for those dependent on wells.
Healthy shoreland can act as a filter for potentially poisonous herbicides and insecticides, and the nutrients that cause oxygen-depleting, decaying algae. A healthy shore is stable, and far less subject to erosion from water runoff, or waves generated by wind or boat wakes. It’s also rich in the aquatic life that is the foundation of the food pyramid that feeds bass, walleyes, pike, muskies, and panfish: healthy shoreland simply equals better fishing.
Shores can also be home to the beauties of native grasses, shrubs and flowering plants, to under-appreciated but vital pollinating insects, and to birds that not only please us with their beauty and song, but consume mosquitoes and garden pests.
Despite the good things that come from healthy shoreland, it’s easy to find examples that don’t provide these benefits. To some, the ideal is lawn-like; manicured and tidy onshore, free of underwater “weeds” to encounter when wading or swimming, with no emergent vegetation to obscure a sweeping view of the water. To others this is an unsatisfying and sterile scene, far too much like suburbia; unwelcoming to wild creatures, and a poor contributor to the web of lake life.
Therein lies the conflict. To complicate matters, once shoreland has been stripped of natural vegetation, rip-rapped with rock, or buttressed with retaining walls—radical changes from a shoreline’s natural state—it takes planning, effort, and usually cost to restore it.
Someone intimately familiar with the intricacy of this balance and human dynamic is Heather Baird. For much of her natural resources career she’s worked with property owners, lake associations, and local units of government to demonstrate ways and help them the find the means to maintain or restore healthy shores.
Baird is a fisheries specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), based in Brainerd, who has worked on shoreland habitat and restoration for many years. Over time, Baird has acquired the official title of Forest Fisheries Landscape Coordinator, recognition that events away from the shore—in the watersheds that drain into lakes or rivers—are reflected in water quality.
“Interest in restoration and maintaining healthy shoreland is growing,” says Baird. “One of our volunteers who is active in encouraging these restorations tells me that a decade ago he would get occasional calls for advice, mostly from property owners on small, so-called “wildlife lakes.” Now, he gets calls for restoration help all the time, and they’re coming from people on lakes like Gull and Whitefish.”
Primary goals in restorations are stabilizing the shore to prevent erosion, and providing a living connection between the land and water, a too-little-recognized benefit that sustains the many small-to-microscopic links in the aquatic food chain. Sever those links and creatures that live in, or near, the water—from fish to herons to waterfowl—will suffer.
The easy answer for preventing erosion is rock “rip-rap,” boulders from small to huge that provide a barrier to break wind or boat-generated waves, dissipating their energy so it won’t wash away shoreline soils. Shorelines are especially vulnerable in periods of high water.
Cruise one of the popular lakes ringed with cabins or year-round residences and you’ll see measurably more boulder-studded shores than a decade ago. But aquatic ecologists view rip-rap as a desert-like zone at the waterline; especially when plants taking hold are pulled, or killed with chemicals to keep the rip-rap clean.
What’s needed to restore shoreland to a more natural, nature-friendly state? The steps often start with chemically eliminating domestic grasses so that native plants won’t be overwhelmed before they can take root. Then it’s a matter of planting appropriate seedlings or shrubs, inserting “plugs” of native grasses or herbaceous plants, and watering and keeping out competitors until the new growth is established.
Emergent plants, which root underwater and rise above its surface, can also be added to the mix, though for property owners who grew up fixated on so-called “weed-free” beaches, this may take getting used to. Waterlily, arrowhead, and several varieties of native bulrush are among the possibilities.
Even a rip-rapped site can be improved, with plantings that create living spaces between the impervious stones. Soil may be needed between the rocks to help plants become rooted, Baird notes, but varieties like calla lily, ferns, jewelweed (“touch-me-not”), and others can make rip-rapping look more natural, and provide a junction of life between land and water.
In an ideal aquatic world, there’d be a buffer strip of native vegetation as much as 25 feet wide between the water and more traditional lawn-like spaces, to filter out undesirable nutrients, pesticides, or herbicides. That could be impractical for many. “But a study in Wisconsin showed that for every foot of buffer, there is at least some value, some reduction in those negative effects,” says Baird. “Anything is good.”
Property owners contemplating a shoreland restoration inevitably face the question of what to plant to restore the natural links between water and land. “The DNR’s Restore the Shore website shows lots of planting options,” says Baird. “They’re arranged by type—grasses, shrubs, trees or vines—and by characteristics a person might prefer, like color or height, and by the plant’s shade or sun needs.”
As any homeowner who has done conventional landscaping knows, some cost is inevitable. If not an obstacle, cost may be a disincentive. Fortunately there’s often both technical and financial help available. Local agencies like the Crow Wing, Cass, and Morrison County Soil and Water Conservation Districts serve as coordinators for funds that are often available for shoreland restoration.
“We don’t receive county taxpayer funding,” says Crow Wing SWCD District Manager Melissa Berrick, “but we do receive funding that can be channeled to projects. This mainly includes funds generated by the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.” Cass and Morrison county SWCDs also receive shoreline restoration funds from this state sales tax source.
Berrick’s department actively promotes good shoreland stewardship via YouTube videos, through the agency’s website, an annual native tree, plant, and seed sale, and by making site visits to help landowners assess a prospective restoration project.
“The DNR formerly provided funding for restorations through our Shoreland Habitat Grant Program,” notes Baird, “but this has been replaced by funds generated by the Legacy Amendment, which is consistent with that constitutional amendment’s purpose.” Besides possible funding, the county SWCDs can provide on-site technical assistance to landowners to advise in the design of shoreland restorations.
Much of the momentum for shoreland restoration today comes from lake associations. These groups are increasingly educating their property-owning members in practices that protect shoreland in an environmentally beneficial way. This creates economies of scale for the DNR and county SWCDs, which are able to reach many through the amplifying effect of the associations. This also provides the secondary benefit of familiarity and trust. “Advice is sometimes better received from a local person you know, rather than from the government,” notes Baird.
Even some municipalities aggressively promote good shoreland stewardship. The Environmental Committee of the City of Lake Shore, whose boundaries include the shores of Gull Lake, contributes up to $10,000 each year in matching funds for shoreland restoration projects in the Gull Chain of Lakes. The city also periodically conducts tours of shoreland restorations to show property owners their potential.
Though virtue is said to be its own reward, there can even be recognition for good works in shoreland management and rehabilitation. The Lake and River Friendly Awards are given out annually by a consortium of organizations committed to good shoreland management. State and county agencies, along with local chapters of several national conservation organizations, sponsor this award, which has been given out for the last 15 years to lake stewardship projects of merit.
The awards—eight of which were given out in 2018—“started back in 2003, so that conservation organizations … could pat people on the back for doing something good, instead of pointing fingers at those who are doing things on their shoreland that are not beneficial,” notes Phil Hunsicker, of the Minnesota DNR’s Division of Ecological and Water Resources, and a member of the award committee. Recipients have included individuals, commercial businesses, associations, educators, agencies, any person or entity that has distinguished itself in the pursuit of good shoreland stewardship.
For those who have labored long and hard in the cause of better shoreland management—either professionally, or as a matter of conscience—the tide at last seems to be turning.
SHORELAND RESTORATION RESOURCES
- Restore Your Shore (Minnesota DNR website): dnr.state.mn.us/rys/index.html
- Crow Wing Soil & Water Conservation District; Melissa Barrick: 218.828.6197
- Morrison Soil & Water Conservation District; Helen McClennan: 320.631.3551
- Cass Soil & Conservation District: 218.547.7399
- Minnesota native plants: Sunshine Gardens, Pine River; 218.947.3154
- Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality (published by the Minnesota DNR): out-of-print, but available via Amazon.com