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Researching lake problems and developing a plan
Timing was important | Hungry geese and other industrious visitors
Nestled near the Lake Michigan shore just six miles southwest of Manitowoc, English Lake was a getaway that got away. A mixed forest of maple, hemlock and yellow birch originally surrounded the 51-acre lake. Like much of northeastern Wisconsin's landscape, its larger trees were cut and the land was cleared for agriculture. During the 1950s and '60s pressures to develop the shoreline for weekend and vacation homes increased. Today the shore is dotted with 60 homes, mainly summer cottages interspersed in the farmlands.
By 1980, concern about the lake's health emerged from residents as quickly as the plant life in the water. Filamentous algae blooms were common during summer months. The algae didn't look good, and it was unpleasant for boaters, canoers and swimmers to navigate. Shoreline property owners and residents of the surrounding community were troubled by the lake's decline.
Carol Entringer was among them. The lake was providing plenty of exercise, but not the kind she wanted. "I was hauling seven wheel barrows full of green slime from my shoreline a week," she recalls. "My neighbors and I decided we wanted to do something about it."
Entringer and her neighbors formed the English Lake Protection and Rehabilitation District (ELPRD) in 1982. She has been the group's elected chairperson since 1996. Through mutual consent, the majority of property owners surrounding English Lake agreed to form a lake district rather than a lake association.
"Forming a taxation district was the right option for us," Entringer says. "We decided a district would some money to address our concerns, protect the health of English Lake and accomplish our goals." As a legal entity, ELPRD could apply for grants to stretch the local investments the community was prepared to make.
In 1991, ELPRD was awarded its first Lake Planning Grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to study English Lake's ailments. The grant marked the starting point for developing and carrying out a comprehensive management plan for the lake.
Researching lake problems and developing a plan
Property owners were willing to take on work to restore English Lake, but analyzing the lake's condition was outside their areas of expertise. ELPRD hired NES Ecological Services (NES), a natural resource consulting firm, to sample the lake's water and investigate possible sources of pollution.
The baseline study showed the water contained unnaturally high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients that fuel plant growth. The nutrients entered the lake through surface runoff from rain and snowmelt, and through agricultural tiles used to drain farm fields. This regular dose of nutrients was the most likely reason for the periodic algae blooms.
Second and third DNR Lake Planning Grants in 1992 and 1996 confirmed the study findings and suggested directions for reducing algae problems. The two largest sources of nutrients reaching the lake came from a barnyard directly east of the lake, and from agricultural tiles draining land just south of the lake. Of the two sources, curtailing the uncontrolled barnyard runoff was the top priority. Sampling showed phosphorus concentrations in the barnyard runoff were 400 percent higher than from any other monitoring site. Water quality sampling around the lake showed that greater than 70 percent of the phosphorus load reaching the lake from overland runoff came from that one barnyard.
The English Lake group used additional grants in 1997 to develop cleanup strategies. The lake consultants proposed an artificial wetland basin to catch surface runoff, providing space and time for nutrients from the barnyard and other farm fields to slowly settle into the soil instead of flowing into the lake. To further decrease nutrient discharges, NES ecologists recommended relocating the cattle from the barnyard parcel nearest the lake to a less sensitive area.
Of course, there was no guarantee the landowner would consider moving his cattle or constructing a wetland on his property. "The project hinged upon the landowner's cooperation and additional partnerships," Entringer says.
Timing was important
The Manitowoc County Soil and Water Conservation Department (SWCD) made the initial contact with the farmer. The agency already had a working relationship with the farmer, and could offer him an important helping hand: It could pay for part of the project. The farm and English Lake are located in the Seven Mile-Silver Creek Watershed, a Wisconsin Priority Watershed – meaning there would be state funds to relocate the cattle and set a conservation easement around the barnyard.
Another bit of good luck attended that first meeting of the farmer, SWCD and the lake group: The timing was right for the project. The farmer had already considered retiring; knowing there was funding available to move his cattle and create an easement provided further incentive. Plus, the proposed 1.5-acre detention basin added to the property value; it would be pleasing to look at and well within view of his house. In the end, the landowner agreed to move his cattle and placed seven acres – including the barnyard and the wetland basin site – into a conservation easement.
After years of planning and careful analysis, the improvements came quickly. By spring of 1998, the cattle had been moved to a farm outside of the English Lake watershed. A perpetual easement on the seven-acre parcel prohibits future livestock or cropping on that lakeside parcel. ELPRD took the lead to pursue state and federal grants to design and excavate the wetland detention basin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed all the studies and plans, and concurred that a detention basin would protect aquatic habitat in English Lake. USFWS agreed to provide the remaining funds to construct the basin. A final partner, the Wisconsin Conservation Corps, provided the strong backs and people power to make it happen.
The basin took only a week to build. In July of 1998, the USFWS staked out the property, set up silt barriers, and brought in heavy equipment to dig out the basin. The landowner donated his time and farming equipment to seed the upland portion after the soil was sculpted into a basin with gentle slopes. The WCC crew hand-planted nursery-grown aquatic species, including hard-stem bulrush, common arrowhead, pickerelweed and common bur-reed in and around the detention pond.
Their work was quickly put to the test. Within a few weeks of construction several heavy rains filled the detention basin with nutrient-rich water. The rain spurred some spectacular and intense filamentous algae blooms in the basin – but it held, trapping nutrients and keeping them out of English Lake.
Hungry geese and other industrious visitors
Of course, there were a few glitches and like most projects, this one provided some unanticipated learning opportunities. One lesson was to never underestimate the grazing power of Canada geese and the lure of a good meal. The aquatic vegetation planted was young, succulent and consequently very palatable for hungry geese.
When the basin was designed, the human partners had decided that the cost and effort of protecting the vegetation from predation probably wasn't justifiable. Shortly after construction, the geese showed us otherwise. Geese that normally resided on English Lake began to frequent the little basin. Within two to three weeks they had eaten the majority of the carefully planted stock. In hindsight, the cost of excluding geese would have been preferable to losing the plants.
And then there were lessons from four-legged friends. We recognized muskrats might pose a challenge, but we underestimated their skill. Within the first year of construction, muskrats began to burrow into the earthen berm that dammed the water and created the basin. The numerous burrows rising from the shallow wetland raised concerns that muskrats might tunnel through the berm, causing it to weaken and seep water from the basin, or perhaps even breach. ELPRD members worked with the landowner to start trapping. Some 20 muskrats were removed the first year and trapping will continue as long as it is necessary. The muskrats' diligent burrowing made us wonder if covering the berm with rock or other impermeable material would have been worth the additional cost and effort.
Having completed two of its major goals, ELPRD members wanted to know if they had accomplished the ultimate aim of reducing the amount of sediment and nutrients entering English Lake. Lakes don't recover overnight, but anecdotal evidence indicates English Lake is on the mend.
"Long-time shoreline residents report vastly improved water clarity and a resurgence of aquatic vegetation," Entringer says. "The DNR water quality biologists said the lake 'looked better than it had in years.'"
Even though the lake is starting to look better, lakeshore owners want to ensure the detention basin continues to trap pollutants as designed. The group secured state grants to continue testing and monitoring. Measurements taken during seven storms between April and October 2000 showed the basin trapped 60-90 percent of the total phosphorus, nitrogen and suspended solids. James Havel, an ecologist with NES, noted that during heavy rains the water trapped in the detention basin was quite turbid, but the water leaving the basin was noticeably clearer.
The taste of success has inspired ELPRD members to take on improvements for the long haul. Now the group is examining the south end of the lake, where drainage tiles carry water from farm fields directly into the lake. The group is considering options for "goose-proofing" the detention basin before replanting it with aquatic vegetation. ELPRD is also restoring the shoreline at a county park abutting the lake.
Group members continue to learn important lessons along the way. First, lakes are fragile ecosystems. People drawn to live on English Lake for the natural amenities it provides also carry the seed of the lake's problems. Aging septic systems, lawn fertilizers, animal wastes, paved streets and construction runoff ring the lake with a steady, seeping source of pollutants. Second, a few dedicated leaders can galvanize their neighbors to organize and collectively address community problems. Third, there is a host of technical help to restore lakes, but communities and groups must seek out those partnerships. Fourth, there are state and federal grants available to help finance improvements, but the community has to be willing to pay part of the way – sometimes in cash, sometimes in making time to complete grant applications, sometimes in providing volunteers to roll up their sleeves and do the labor.
To date, ELPRD has obtained more than $70,000 in grants to improve conditions and clear algae around little English Lake. The group has forged partnerships among neighbors, county conservation agencies, the Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Just as it took decades for pollution to do its damage, it may take decades to reverse the problems pollution has caused. The communities that succeed in lake restoration share a vision and persevere to maintain the natural beauty that initially drew them to the water's edge.
Tim Hoyman is an aquatic ecologist and division manager with NES Ecological Services of Green Bay.