Engaging community stakeholders for water quality in lakes

When conducting water quality studies on local lakes, it is important to have sound scientific methods guiding the investigative process. Equally important is the need to reach out to community members who have a vested interest in the health of the lake.

As Michiganders, we take great pride in our abundant water resources. Surrounded by over one fifth of the world’s surface fresh water, we have a keen awareness of the importance of our unique natural resources. This sentience trickles its way down in a very localized and personal manner to our local communities.

A lake can be affected by many activities. Housing near and along the lakeshore can alter the natural vegetation buffer around the shoreline and septic systems and lawn fertilizers can add nutrient loads that enter the lake ecosystem. Manure and fertilizers from nearby farms can do the same. Boating can churn up sediments and effect sensitive areas of the lake, and angler activity can alter the balance of fish species. All of these activities when properly conducted and managed are reasonably expected uses around lakes, but they can put pressures on the lake’s ecosystem. As various groups, such as lake associations and anglers, begin to take notice of potentially detrimental effects on a lake’s water quality, often it becomes the local municipal government’s role to lead efforts to identify, monitor and remedy water quality issues.

Understanding water quality in a lake most often starts with the hiring of a private firm or university to conduct an assessment of the lake. A best practice recommendation is that a community has an independent assessment performed by a party other than the one whom shall be conducting treatments of the lake. Separating the study from the treatment prevents the possibility of any conflict of interest that could occur using the same party for both. These studies take time to properly conduct (usually from spring through fall), requiring much sampling and time by the researchers on the water. These studies, therefore, can be costly but are worth the investment. If a lake has never had an assessment conducted, than the first one will also serve as a baseline for future studies, which can be done every decade or so depending on water quality conditions and need. In addition to providing an understanding of the current status and conditions of the lake, recommendations for treatment (such as invasive species control) will be provided if needed.

Having the lake assessment allows the local government to make informed decisions based on science to improve their lake’s water quality. These leaders often receive strong pressure from those with a vested interest in the lake. It is not uncommon for these stakeholders to approach lake quality as a “single issue” driven by their particular interests, such as angler’s desire for quality fishing or recreational boaters wanting crystal clear waters. At first glance, these requests can seem contradictory and these stakeholders may even present themselves against one another, but there is a way to engage stakeholders as part of the assessment process that can result in all parties working together toward a common goal.

By including stakeholder engagement as part of the assessment process, stakeholders are engaged early in the process. They are given an opportunity to express their concerns so that they may be addressed during the study. Additionally, upon completion of the study, these stakeholders are brought together in a series of meetings to educate them on water quality, discuss the findings of the study and determine a course of action moving forward. In most cases, groups that thought they had competing interests find that they really share the same common goal (a healthy lake), but were just approaching the issue from different directions. Bringing these groups together has shown a positive, symbiotic effect where they continue to work together on shared goals. Outcomes of this process can go far beyond just a simple treatment plan for the lake. Additional outcomes include, for example, bringing in best practice septic system, fertilizer, manure management and fishing education for lake association members, nearby farmers and anglers or changes to local zoning to better protect water quality.

Including stakeholder engagement relieves the political challenges a local government may have by giving voice to those with concerns while empowering and engaging them in the process. Additionally, it allows for the process to be facilitated by an unbiased outside expert who has experience navigating communities through these delicate issues. Lastly, including a stakeholder engagement component to the assessment should only add about 10 percent to the cost of the study: money well spent that will have positive impacts for many years to come.

For additional resources, Michigan State University Extension has Educators that may be able to provide assistance.

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