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Mark Gunderman

Mark Gunderman

Although a steep slope descends from my house to the lake shore, I am fortunate that it flattens out about 10 feet short of the water. That gives the property what I might call “useable shore” if making a sales pitch. There’s plenty of room for a fire ring, or to set up some chairs and gaze at the stars or watch fireworks.

However, when a lake like Wissota has a lot of residential lots with “useable shores” that are set up for the comforts of people, you end up with a nicely manicured shore and a dirty lake. That’s the message that the people with the Healthy Lakes initiative would like to drive home to waterfront property owners throughout the state.

Patrick Goggin, a lakes specialist with UW-Extension brought the gospel of Healthy Lakes to a gathering of regional lake property owners at Beaver Creek Reserve Wednesday.

The problem is well understood. Phosphorous, a nutrient found commonly in fertilizers and naturally in soils, gets washed into lakes by rainwater and causes algae blooms that degrade water quality. Runoff from thousands of acres in a watershed and the sediment it carries contribute to the problem, and initiatives like the Lake Wissota Stewardship Project are designed to address that.

However, land immediately adjacent to the lake plays a big role, too, and the more urbanized a lake becomes, the worse it gets. Goggin reminisced about the days when having lake property meant a tiny three-season cabin where dad and mom slept inside and the kids slept outside, and loved it.

“Well, now we have four-season structures with more hard surfaces and it’s hard for that water to find a place to soak in,” Goggin said.

He reviewed what a natural lakeshore looks like, with lots of fallen trees in the water, aquatic plants in the shallows, thick shoreline vegetation, a canopy of large trees and a thick undergrowth of younger trees and brush. Why, not much of that runoff water could make it through all of that, plus the vegetation provided wildlife habitat with a greater diversity of songbirds, and the trees and vegetation in the water provided better fish habitat and a protection against wave erosion. And the water was a lot cleaner when that was the typical profile of Wisconsin lakes.

But now we have our big houses, paved driveways, nicely mowed lawns, stone-floored patios, piles of riprap rocks at the shore, and water that this time of year might start to smell bad depending on the wind direction. How useable is that shore now?

No, Goggin is not pushing for people to tear down their houses and walk away so nature can reclaim it all. “But we can go about something called lakeshore restoration,” he said.

That is, waterfront property owners can make some different, healthy lake-oriented choices and still enjoy their property that over time will be on a cleaner lake. He outlined some simple things that property owners can do, and even offered (on behalf of a state grant program) to help pay for it.

Consider letting that tree that fell in the water stay there to provide fish and aquatic insect habitat. Or, put together a group of “fish sticks” to be placed in the shallows.

Plant native plants along the shore, creating a buffer that can slow runoff water and give it a chance to soak in. Or simply stop mowing a section of your lawn by the shore. Nature will fill in the plants.

Look for those areas where runoff water rushes toward the lake, often causing erosion. Create a diversion to send the water to an area where it can soak in.

One such area might be a rain garden you created – an area with natural plants selected to absorb rainwater in a low area where rainwater collects.

Create rock infiltrations along roof drip lines and driveways where runoff water can filter itself.

These are only brief descriptions. You can find out more, and learn about the grant program, at healthylakeswi.com.

The Lake Wissota Improvement and Protection Association is in the process of applying for a grant to reimburse a substantial portion of the costs for property owners who are planning such projects. But some helpful actions are so inexpensive to do all it takes is a little time and the will.

Looking at my own property, I see that I need to make a lot of changes that would be friendlier to the lake. It’s not just a matter of how useable my shoreline is to me, but how useable the water in the lake is to other people who enjoy it, and the fish and wildlife that depend on it.

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