The state of Michigan’s inland lake shorelines

DEQ and EPA report reveals the degraded conditions of Michigan’s inland lakeshores.

November 17, 2017 - Author: Erick Elgin, Extension Educator

Every five years the United States Environmental Protection Agency partners with state agencies, including the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, to assess the condition of the nation’s inland lakes. In Michigan the study includes collecting data on the biological, chemical and physical conditions of a minimum of 50 randomly selected lakes across Michigan that are over 2.5 acres. Although we have many more than 50 lakes, the design of this study allows us to take the pulse of what is happening in Michigan’s inland lakes

The latest report (published in 2017) includes data from 2007 and 2012. It concluded that poor lakeshore habitat is the biggest issue in Michigan’s inland lakes. In 2012, nearly 50% of the lakes were considered to be in the “most disturbed” category (i.e. degraded) with regards to lakeshore habitat complexity and riparian vegetation cover. These are indicators of lake health that look at habitat around and within a lake. Lakeshore habitat is considered “degraded” when too much vegetation such as standing and downed trees and native aquatic plants have been removed and replaced by lakefront development, lawns, man-made beaches and seawalls.

The study also concluded that Michigan’s shallow water habitat (e.g. aquatic plants and overhanging brush) is “most disturbed” in almost 40 % of the lakes. In contrast, the national percent for the “most disturbed” category is closer to 20 %.

Between 2007 and 2012, for every shoreline indicator, the number of lakes in the “least disturbed” category (i.e. pristine) decreased while the number of lakes in the “most disturbed” category increased. These results may be an indicator that Michigan’s inland lakes need more protections and stewardship.

Over-developed lakeshores can have a dramatic impact on lakes. For example, shoreline erosion increases when there are no native plants to hold the soil in place with their deep and fibrous roots. Water quality can decrease due to an increase in pollutants, such as phosphorous, since the natural vegetation protections that capture pollutants before they enter the lake have been removed. When the trees and plants that animals, such as fish, birds, frogs and turtles rely on are gone, they too disappear.

Often, when shoreline property is developed, traditional landscaping practices and ideas are used (i.e. a clean-cut lawn up to the water’s edge for the full length of the shoreline). This type of landscaping is not sustainable for the long term health of a lake. A more ideal approach instead is to clear only the area you need for lake access and preserve the rest of the shoreline property as habitat and a buffer that supports natural processes.

There are many lake-friendly practices and designs that integrate a natural component of shoreline development with landscaping plans. Many of these practices are as simple as adding native vegetation back to a portion of a shoreline property. Widespread adoption of such practices can help to reverse the shoreline degradation reported in this study.

The Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership (MNSP) promotes lake healthy landscaping and erosion control techniques and trains practitioners and homeowners on their use. To learn more about sustainable shoreline landscaping and development, visit the MNSP and Michigan Shoreline Stewards Program websites.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit To have a digest of information delivered straight to your inbox, visit To contact an expert in your area, visit, or call 888-MSUEMI (888-678-3464).

Tags: fisheries & wildlife, lakes, landscaping, lawn & garden, msu extension, natural resources, streams & watersheds

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