Local government has an important role for water quality protection: Part 1

State and federal regulations help protect water resources but does not do the whole job—local government has an important role also: often the proactive, preventative function.

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Photo credit: Kurt Schindler

Local governments have a very important role to play in the protection of surface water, ground water, drinking water and wetlands, often filling in the gaps in state and federal regulations. If local government does not do so with local zoning, those gaps may not be addressed.

There are various state and federal laws designed to protect water quality, but relying only on state laws may not do a complete job, according to Katherine Ardizone et al. in a guidebook for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, “Filling the Gaps: Environmental Protection Options for Local Governments.” The guidebook shares that “. . . state level [laws] are not enough; they tend to blunt but not stop degradation of the shore, and do not protect entire ecosystems, only resources found on particular parcels.”

Local government can be preventative with zoning; a characteristic of zoning that is not always found in state statutes. Often, state laws focus on just one parcel or are in reaction to a problem that has already occurred. In addition, the book “Filling the Gaps” lists what aspects of environmental protection are not regulated by federal and state and gaps in those regulations – pointing out important roles for local government.

No one level of government can be effective on its own. It takes a cooperative effort. One way to visualize this is with local government in the center and in a circle around local government are state and federal environmental regulation programs, watershed groups and landowners.

However, there are two caveats to local government involvement in the protection of water. First, to be most effective one needs to address an issue at the same geography as the topic being addressed. That means local governments should coordinate and come together to protect a resource such as water so the actions include the entire watershed or groundwater shed. Otherwise, one is doing only part of the job.

Second, in Michigan’s glacial geology, groundwater, surface water (lakes and streams), and wetlands are interconnected. That means water, and any contaminants in that water, travel back and forth between all three: wetlands, surface and ground waters. The local approach must tackle all three. Otherwise, one is only doing part of the job.

Prevention of groundwater contamination through zoning often is done with site plan review standards in the zoning ordinance, a resource created by Michigan State University Extension, which requires secondary containment and restricting use of dry wells. Preventing drinking water and groundwater contamination is also part of the Michigan Wellhead Protection program. This is a proactive effort to identify historic and current possible sources of contaminants within a public water well’s area so the community can monitor those issues. Also, a community uses zoning, fire inspections and other incentives to prevent future contamination in the well’s area. These strategic activities are spelled out in a community’s wellhead protection plan.

Proactive protection of wetlands and surface water (lakes, rivers) is often an issue of how the shoreline is treated: setbacks, vegetation belts or buffers, and density of development (parcel size and impervious surface). What size vegetation belt, and how big a setback, will be determined by doing homework first.

The problem a community is trying to address will depend on the goal. It will also depend on results of looking at primary information about the area’s lake size and shape (morphology), soil types (web soil survey), slopes, and flood information or more generalized data from How’s My Waterway through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This type of information can be obtained from places like regional planning agencies, county geographic information system (GIS) data, state agencies, soil conservation districts and watershed centers.

Standards used in a zoning ordinance will depend on the specific goals and need to be based on this homework and defensible, science-based standards. For example, the goal may be to protect water from nutrients and other runoff. Or, goals may be to protect aesthetics of a resource, or to protect natural habitat. Different standards will result depending on what a community is trying to accomplish.

Minnesota adopted a Shoreland Management Classification System that classifies lakes into management categories such as natural environment lakes, recreation development lakes, and general development lakes. The classification system is supported by a statewide mapping database and suggested model ordinance. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources shares locally innovative standards for shoreland regulation such as bluffs, density/lot size, impervious surface, and nonconformities. While the lake and river classification system is statewide, local jurisdictions implement all permitting, ordinance adoption, and ordinance amendment.

Evangeline Township, in northern Michigan, collaborated with organizations, like the Tipp of the Mitt Watershed Council, to perform initial studies that provided the basis to set a policy direction and amend the master plan. The elements of the plan supported amendments to the zoning ordinance, including limiting impervious surfaces and incorporating a landscape buffer, all with the goal of protecting Lake Charlevoix.

Another way to look at this is to explore various regulations based on whether the purpose is water quality protection, aesthetic or habitat protection. The following table was developed from the GEM pilot project in Manistee County in 1995. It followed an intense amount of research done by MSU’s Institute of Water Research and looks at the county soils, lithology of water wells, groundwater movement and various sources of peered reviewed research. These numbers apply to lakes, rivers and wetlands.

  Water quality protection from nutrients, runoff Protection of areas of special concern: pristine rivers, fish habitat, special and unique environments Protection of habitat, environmental corridors
Buffer strip (with no or minimal use of fertilizer) 5 to 10 feet 20 feet (Lakeland Report #12) (with filtered view)

33 to 400 feet (birds)

97 feet (avoid logging impacts)

Enough to retain river in full shade (fish)

Minimum parcel size: no public sewer 15,000 square feet 40,000 square feet 80,000 square feet
Minimum parcel size: both public water and sewer 12,000 square feet 29,000 square feet 40,000 square feet
Minimum parcel width at the waterfront 100 feet 100-300 feet 150-300 feet
Setback for buildings and impervious surface 50 feet from surface water or wetland edge 50 feet from landward edge of buffer 50 from landward edge of buffer
Setback for nutrient and bacteria sources (drain field, manure storage, compost pile) (Prohibit use of dry well or equivalent) 100 feet from surface water or wetland edge 100 feet from surface water or wetland edge 100 feet from surface water or wetland edge

The point is what standards are used will depend on goals, objectives, and primary background data. This information would be included in a community’s master plan. The public participation part of adopting a master plan will also help determine what will be politically palatable and define the constraints that existing development may impose.

As a result, a more practical ideal may be along the lines of the following:

  • 50-foot building setback from the water’s edge
  • 100-foot septic and other nutrient source setback from the water’s edge
  • 30-50 foot buffer strip (UofM Biological Station or Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council) (combination of native trees and shrubs: No removal except dead, diseased, invasive; limited trimming and removal to have views; pesticide and fertilizer use restrictions)
  • 25% or less shoreline alteration
  • 15% impervious surface within 500 feet of shoreline (standard based on soils: 10-40%)

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