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Living with Lakes

If you live on or near a lake, you are probably already aware of the unique joys and challenges of lakeside living. Whether you enjoy your lake by swimming, boating, fishing or watching birds, everything depends on the health of your lake and good water quality. Unlike rivers or streams, lakes are often calm or have slow moving water that stays in lake for a long time. This presents unique challenges for homeowners, but there is plenty that lakeside Shore Stewards can do to keep their lakes clean and healthy.

Many of the over-7,800 lakes in our state were created around 11,000 years ago when the glaciers from the last ice age retreated north of the Canadian border. The glaciers formed lake basins by gouging and piling loose soil and bedrock, burying ice chunks that melted to form lake basins, or depositing gravel and boulders across stream beds, damming the water and forming lakes. Lakes constantly evolve, reflecting changes in their watersheds, whether natural or man-made. They are all filling slowly with decaying plant materials, as well as soil washed in by floods and streams. These gradual changes affect the succession of plant and animal communities, but dramatic changes can be made in just a few years as a result of human activities.

Although many of our lakes have fairly good water quality, some lakes may be getting too many nutrients. This often occurs due to fertilizer use, failing septic systems, or pet waste left on the ground, all of which can get carried into lakes with water running off the landscape. Some nutrients also get into lakes once they soak into the ground near the lake, such as when too much fertilizer is used and even from properly functioning septic systems, since they are not typically designed to remove all the nutrients. These additional nutrients fertilize lake plants and algae. While some algae is important to the health of all lakes, providing food and energy to fish and other lake organisms, too much algae can actually harm fish and freshwater organisms and is undesirable to recreational users. There are some algae species, like blue-green algae, that produce toxins as well. The regular occurrence of algal blooms may indicate that the levels of phosphorus or nitrogen are too high. If the scums appear near the shoreline, and the toxin levels are dangerously high, local health departments will close the lake to recreation until the danger is passed or advise people (and pets) to stay out of the water.

While most of the tips and guidelines in this booklet apply to living on or near a lake. lakeside dwellers need to take special care to:

  • Use organic or slow-release fertilizers on your lawn, or use none at all. Abide by the label recommendations for application amounts, and be sure not to use immediately before predicted rain.

  • Shrink your lawn by adding native plant gardens. Less lawn means less maintenance, watering, mowing, fertilizing, and expense. More rain will soak into the ground instead of running off into the lake. Geese love large lawns, so reducing your lawn may also mean less geese.

  • Plant a buffer of native plants and vegetation between your lawn and your lake, using the right plants for the site. This will help decrease run-off from your property, and also make it less attractive to nuisance geese.

  • Landscape to slow rainwater run-off between your house and the lake. Make it easier for water to soak into the ground by placing small swales where water will naturally drain off your property, taking caution that it does not flow over a bluff, which could cause erosion or landslides. Create twists in your driveways or paths.

  • Plant a rain garden, which will help prevent excess nutrients and contaminants from flowing into the lake.

  • Consider removing your bulkhead, if you have one, or developing your property without the installation of bulkheads, which cause erosion below the waterline and eliminate habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon. Retain native vegetation whenever possible, which provides food and habitat for birds, animals and fish.

  • Practice natural yard care to protect water quality by using compost to build healthy soil, and watering the right amount and only when necessary. Seek natural alternatives to pesticides.

  • Maintain your septic system, since failed septic systems can cause significant water quality problems for lakes. Get regular inspections by an experienced professional.

  • Never dump aquarium contents, fish, or amphibious animals into the lake. These can quickly multiply, creating serious negative impacts to lake ecology.

  • Clean up pet waste promptly, as it can run off when it rains, contributing significant fecal contamination to your lake.

  • Learn to identify the noxious weeds around or in your lake. Some to watch for include Eurasian watermilfoil, purple loosestrife, fragrant water lily, yellow flag iris, and Brazilian elodea. Find out what you can do to eradicate and control them before it becomes a problem, and notify your county‚Äôs noxious weed coordinator if it does.

If you are doing any construction or lake management activity, including aquatic plant control, you may be required to obtain one or more special permits. Check into this with your local planning department early in your planning stages to avoid violation of federal, state or local laws. See Guideline 10 for additional information on permits.

Everyone around your lake has a stake in the health of the lake. Working together will benefit everyone. Consider joining your lake association or homeowners association, to work together on common objectives and goals. Working with neighbors and other property owners around your lake, and understanding how your lake works, will help you protect it.