Reap the benefits of natural shoreline landscapes

Developing landscapes that protect and restore natural shorelines provides beautiful vistas while preserving water quality and improving fish and wildlife habitat.

A natural shoreline landscape reduces negative impacts from pollutants, sediment and algae blooms that can lead to loss of recreational use, and lower fish and wildlife populations. As development of lake side properties occurred over the years, there has been a trend to remove natural shoreline vegetation and plant grass along the waterfront.

Lawn grasses like Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescue do not have the deep root systems that native shoreline plants naturally provide along the water’s edge. Shallow rooted plants cannot stabilize the shoreline from wave action, increasing the potential for bank erosion. Short-rooted lawn grasses have the additional problem of not growing well in wet soils along the shore. These problems lead to thin lawns where soil particles are washed into the lake causing sedimentation of the lake bottom and fish spawning habitat.

Photo credit: Jane Herbert.
Photo credit: Jane Herbert, MSUE.

Phosphorus fertilizers used on lake-side lawns can have serious impacts on water quality as runoff carries nutrients directly into the lake. Once phosphorus is in the water, it stimulates plant growth, including algae blooms, which reduces oxygen levels and damages fish populations, creates irritating smells and harms recreational use of the lake.

So what can be done to prevent negative impact to the lake while maintaining the aesthetic and recreational value of a lawn area? The first action should be to eliminate the use of phosphorus-based fertilizers near any water systems, be it lakes, streams or ponds. Secondly, a buffer strip of native vegetation between turf and the water would be of great benefit to the health of the lake.

Natural shoreline landscapes incorporate vegetation that naturally occurs along the shoreline. These landscapes include upland plants growing in drier soils, transitioning to wetland species along the water’s edge and, finally, changes over to emergent aquatic plants that grow directly in the water. Natural shoreline landscape designs do include open areas for access to the lake for recreation but overall reduces the areas void of natural vegetation.

Native vegetation between turf and the water.
Native vegetation between turf and the water. Photo credit: Jane Herbert, MSUE.

These shoreline plantings create a natural buffer, which stabilizes the shore from the action of waves, provides habitat for wetland birds and shades and cools the water, helping fish to thrive. Natural shoreline plantings capture sediment and reduce nutrient runoff that reaches the lake. Nutrients that do move into the shoreline landscapes are utilized for plant growth, reducing phosphorus pollution in lakes and ponds that can lead to algae blooms.

Another benefit of shoreline plantings are the beauty of these landscapes. A great publication providing in-depth information on developing shoreline plantings along with detailed information on the plants that grow in this transition zone from land to water is called Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. This publication as well as other Water Quality bulletins can be found at the MSUE Water Quality Bulletins website.

For more information on managing the shoreline, visit MSUE’s Kellogg Biological Station Restoring the Shore on Michigan Inland Lakes website, and the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership website.

Graphics by Kristen Faasse.
Left, traditional lake front landscape. Middle, residential lake front landscape: natural or restored buffer zones. Right, residential lake front landscape: manicured landscape with buffer zones. Graphics by Kristen Faasse.

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