Keeping Lakes Healthy

Lake shore homes.
RENAULT Philippe / / Getty Images

Living with a lake view can be a wonderful way to feel close to nature, to enjoy aquatic activities, and to experience the seasons as they go by. However, owning lakeshore property comes with responsibilities towards the ecological health of the lake. To be able to continue enjoying the natural beauty and recreational activities a lake has to offer, and to keep your property's value up, here are a few steps to consider:

Minimize Runoff

Pollution is perhaps the most direct threat to a lake ecosystem. In the absence of industrial waste discharge, much of the pollutants come from rainfall runoff. Perhaps the single most important step to prevent water pollution is to control the amount of pollutant that gets into the lake washed in by rainfall. This can be accomplished through several approaches:

  • Minimize your lawn area. Maintaining a grass lawn is often thought to mean the application of fertilizers and herbicides and it is very difficult to dose them precisely. Rain will transport excess fertilizer into the lake, which will stimulate smelly, unsightly, and potentially toxic algal blooms. Consider skipping the fertilizer, and learn to live with an imperfect lawn. Better yet, cut down on the amount of lawn you need to maintain. Herbicides can be toxic to aquatic life – if you need to use them, spot treat the problem areas as needed.
  • Capture runoff from impervious surfaces. Rooftops and driveways are examples of impervious surfaces, which do not allow water to percolate into the soil. Instead, rainwater collects pollutants and speeds off, contributing to soil erosion. These soil particles end up in lakes, creating sedimentation problems. Roof runoff can be captured with rain barrels, and later used to water flower beds. Road runoff can be routed into a rain garden made of water-loving plants. The energy of the moving water will be absorbed, slowing down erosion, and the suspended particles will get deposited in the garden, instead of in the lake. If you’re planning a new or replacement driveway, consider permeable ones made of pavers which lets run water through and reach the soil.

Protect Natural Shoreline Vegetation

  • Bare lawn all the way to the shoreline might be an aesthetic that appeals to some, but it is hurtful to a lake. It is important to protect existing vegetation along the shoreline: the shrubs and trees there keep the shallow waters cooler, preventing unsightly algal blooms and protecting fish habitat. The plants’ roots hold on to the shoreline soil, preventing erosion. A thick vegetation strip along the shore also acts as a buffer, absorbing pollutants and sediment flowing towards the lake.
  • Replace lost or damaged shoreline vegetation by planting native species. Your local nursery should be able to suggest fast-growing, hardy plants adapted to wet shoreline conditions.

Discourage Invasive Species

  • When landscaping your property, stick to native plant species, especially along the shoreline. Exotic plants can become invasive and rapidly spread along the shore, displacing native ones and disrupting the aquatic ecosystem. Damaging invasive plants include phragmites, purple loosestrife, and reed canary grass.
  • A common way for invasive aquatics plants to enter a lake is by hitching a ride on a boat (an invasive species vector). Bits of algae or plant can be stuck on a boat propeller, or on the trailer, and be accidentally transferred from one lake to another. To avoid this, take precautions before putting a boat in and better yet consider the possibility of implementing a boat inspection station at the public boat ramp. Many states have grants to assist landowner associations in funding these inspections. Particularly worrisome are Eurasian water-milfoil and​ the spiny water flea, as they can radically transform a lake’s ecology and significantly alter recreational activities.

Friendlier Fishing

  • Countless lakes now have invasive fish species that were introduced by anglers. Don’t be a bucket biologist – only use native fish, crayfish, and leeches as bait. Many lakes have aquatic ecosystems that have now been transformed by the introduction of yellow perch, golden shiners, or rock bass.
  • A particularly insidious form of lake pollution is lead to lost tackle. Practice lead-free fishing, and avoid making the wildlife sick. Loons, grebes, ducks, and bald eagles are particularly vulnerable.

Practice Green Boating

  • Motorboat activities can be disruptive to a lake’s health in many ways. Avoid these issues by choosing human-powered options: canoe, kayak, sailboat, or stand-up paddleboard.
  • If you are using a motorboat, favor four-stroke engines over two-stroke ones. They have better fuel economy, fewer emissions, and are quieter. They also do not release unburned fuel into the water, which two-strokes do.
  • Mind your wake. Slow down when you are near shore, as the wave action created by boats can increase shore erosion, releasing sediment, and damage shoreline vegetation.

Controlling Waste Water

  • Follow existing local ordinances for your septic systems. Regulations specify a minimum distance between the lake shore and your septic system. In addition, regular inspections and maintenance will ensure it functions properly. Leaky septic systems are a major source of nutrient pollution.
  • Mind the products that end up in your septic tank – one of the main issues is the algae-feeding phosphate in soaps. Laundry detergent is now largely phosphate-free in the United States, but many dish-washing soap brands still contain it.
  • However tempting it is, avoid washing in the lake. Shampoos and soaps contain chemicals that are not friendly to aquatic ecosystems, despite the “biodegradable” or “all natural” labels on the bottle.

Going the Extra Mile

  • Join your lake association and be a voice for conservation. When issues arise, research them and promote environmentally sound solutions. In the United States, state departments of natural resources usually have limnologists (lake scientists) who can answer your questions. In addition, many state universities have cooperative extension services which may be able to help you.
  • Be involved with your regional land trust. They may be able to help you protect pieces of shoreline property that are key to the health of a lake.