For the past two months, I researched shoreline regulations that require homeowners and farm owners to put in buffer strips along the lakes and rivers. These buffer strips act as barriers which can help trap sediment and phosphorous runoff before it reaches the water.
While regulations at the state and, until recently, the county level have been in place for years, they have not been strictly enforced and only an estimated 35 percent of the homes on Tainter Lake are in compliance.
The key thing I investigated this summer is what motivates these people to cooperate with shoreline regulations. I found that people who know about the ordinances are more likely to have a buffer strip, but those who express concern about water quality are exponentially more likely to have a buffer strip.
Understanding the impact
To address this, officials could more actively enforce the law, which would undoubtedly make the regulations a more important factor in people’s decisions to put in a buffer strip, but my research suggests that this may not be the most efficient use of limited resources. Rather, I suggest that more resources be created to help people understand the impact that buffer strips can have on water quality and to help homeowners understand what the ordinance requires of them.
My estimates suggest that if all of the shore land in the Dunn County portion of the Red Cedar watershed were either natural woodlands or wetlands or had a 35-foot buffer strip as required by the law, then 868 pounds of phosphorous — which produces roughly 433,940 pounds of algae! — would be caught before reaching the water each year. Admittedly this is nowhere near enough phosphorous to solve the algae problem, but it is still very significant.
I do not think that the amount of phosphorous that can be diverted by buffer strips makes the cost and effort of enforcing this legislation worth doing so; however, I do think it is enough to warrant the attention of shoreline home owners. In my opinion, the real strength of this ordinance is that it involves individuals in the solution.
On the surveys we distributed, we asked citizens and property owners: Whose responsibility is it to clean-up the lake? As so many people pointed out, it is everyone’s responsibility.
It is easy to point at someone else and say that it is their job to find a solution, but if you want the lake to be clean, then it is your responsibility as well. There is certainly a role for the government in solving this problem and for farm owners, but there is also a role for community members.
Shoreline regulations like this are important and somewhat unique in that they apply to both townspeople and farmers. Complying with these regulations is, in my opinion, the easiest and best way for shoreline home owners to acknowledge their role in the problem and their commitment to finding a solution, without which it is unreasonable to expect cooperation from others.
So many people who live on the lake and river filled out my survey and expressed concern about the cleanliness of what they consider to be an extension of their backyard that I have no doubt that the vast majority of these people want to see a cleaner lake and river.
However, I have also seen that many people are confused about what is required of them by law and could use help with landscaping. This is where I see a role for local government and other organizations in implementing this law. I think people would benefit from more widely distributed educational resources and a more easily understood version of what the law says.
Many community members and students also indicated that they would be willing to volunteer time to landscaping projects. If connected with homeowners who need help, this could make a huge difference for those people who are unable to put in a buffer strip because of the labor, or the cost, or the time. I hope that if given this support, more home owners will be willing to cooperate with the legislation in place and install a full 35-foot buffer.
I think it is easy to dismiss laws like the Wisconsin state statute NR 115 and the Dunn County Shore Land Ordinance, because they alone cannot possibly solve the pollution problems. However, there will never be one perfect solution.
I strongly believe that if the water quality on Menomin and Tainter is to be improved, the solution will come from many smaller changes. I think that complying with these shoreline policies is a small, but important, step in the right direction — in part because of the sediment buffer strips catch run-off, in part because of the solidarity that putting in a buffer strip demonstrates, and in part because people whose neighbors have buffer strips are significantly more likely to have one as well.