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Back from the brink | A super deal pays off for Long Lake
A team effort on Silver Lake
Protecting little urban ponds | Planning for play
From Myron Schuster's point of view, 1997 was a watershed year in Burnett County's management of its water resources. As the County Administrator at the time, Schuster grew concerned as proposals to develop shoreland parcels around the county's more than 500 lakes and along its many miles of riversides and streambanks flooded his desk. "The County Board kept seeing more and more requests for changes and it was difficult to deal with," said Schuster. "It was hit or miss." Finding a way to objectively review all the proposals was a real challenge.
To make better decisions about shoreland development, Schuster believed the county needed two things: lake classification and a land use plan. Starting with a $200,000 Lake Protection Grant from the Department of Natural Resources, the county worked with John Preissing, the UW-Extension Community, Natural Resources and Economic Development agent, to complete the integrated plan in 18 months.
One issue in particular kept coming up as public input was gathered during the planning process. "People wanted to know 'How do we maintain the pristine waters and clean air that we have?'" said Schuster. "Shoreland laws and enforcement were not enough."
To address this concern the county designed an incentive program, funded by a second lake protection grant, to re-establish buffers of natural vegetation along lakeshores. Participants receive cost-sharing and professional advice on installing a buffer. They get an initial $250 payment and an annual $50 tax credit, an exclusive program T-shirt, and a sign they can proudly post on their property identifying the parcel as a "Preserved Natural Shoreline." Between 2000 and 2003, some 35 miles of shoreline buffers had been preserved, 80,644 square feet of shoreland buffers were restored, and 484 parcels now have covenants to maintain the buffers in perpetuity. "Over 38 miles of shoreline has been protected and the program fills up every year," said Schuster."This never would have happened without help from DNR grants."
This success story and the cases that follow illustrate how lake protection grants can provide the spark to fuel community action and encourage the dedication, cooperation and teamwork necessary to improve waters from Ashland to Kenosha and from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan.
Back from the brink
Bass Lake, a small lake in far northeastern Wisconsin, had a diverse sport fishery that included trout as recently as 1970. But two decades of runoff from cropland, barnyards and unconfined manure stacks drained high levels of nutrients into the lake, which promoted plant growth and sucked up dissolved oxygen. Between 1977 and 1995, the average concentrations of phosphorus (a nutrient that fuels algae growth) were nearly 50 times the level considered "good." By 1990 the water quality had worsened and fish kills had decimated the sport fish population.
From 1985 through 2000 the lake received some intensive help from the Marinette County Land & Water Conservation Department (LWCD), assisted by DNR's Runoff Management Section. The aim was to eliminate the direct animal waste runoff flowing into Bass Lake. The two farm operations in the watershed fully cooperated and installed recommended practices including clean water diversions, barnyard runoff controls, filter strips, roof runoff management, and new means to store manure.
Despite this effort, managers knew it would be years before the lake would show signs of improvement: The phosphorus accumulated in the lake sediments would "recycle" within the lake, continuing to foul the water quality for decades.
In the fall of 1999, the lake was treated with alum, a chemical that binds with phosphorus in the lake sediments, sealing off the internal recycling. A $43,000 lake protection grant from the DNR covered 75 percent of the costs. The alum application dramatically reduced phosphorus levels in Bass Lake. Massive algal blooms stopped and water quality improved almost immediately. Water clarity has more than doubled in less than five years and there have been no fish kills noted since treatment began. Fish surveys conducted less than three years after treatment showed healthy populations of forage fish, panfish and predators such as largemouth bass and northern pike.
"Remediation is very expensive, but sometimes there is no alternative to repair damage from years of improper land practices," said Greg Sevener, DNR staffer who works on area watershed issues. "Any government program is only as good as the level of local interaction and cooperation. We just kept talking and working with the Marinette County LWCD and local landowners stayed involved."
Chuck Druckrey of the Marinette County LWCD says, "Bass Lake proves the old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To restore Bass Lake took 15 years, millions of dollars and unprecedented cooperation among landowners, state regulators and local lake managers. We simply can't afford to restore every lake in Wisconsin, so we had better protect them while we can."
A super deal pays off for Long Lake
Long Lake in Chippewa County is one of the most undeveloped waters in western Wisconsin. A sizeable parcel of more than 580 acres at the southern end of the lake was put up for sale in 2000. The property includes old-growth red oak forest with trees more than a century old. Eventually a real estate developer bought the land and intended to build nearly 150 houses, including 60 residential lakeshore lots.
Long Lake residents were justifiably concerned, because the parcel contained about two miles of shoreline and a very popular island. The news of land sale especially worried Steve Kristo, an Eau Claire orthodontist, who struck a deal with the developer to purchase 215 acres even before it was sold.
The developer still owned nearly 350 acres, which included over a mile of shoreline on Long Lake and parts of six other shallow-water wild lakes. A development plat was subsequently drawn up for county approval indicating plans to develop 99 lots, with over 30 of the homes built on the Long Lake shoreline.
Kristo wondered how to make a play to preserve the rest of these parcels from being overdeveloped. DNR staff suggested he contact the West Wisconsin Land Trust (WWLT) for assistance. WWLT staff met with Kristo and DNR biologists to discuss the situation, introducing the tools the land trust could bring to the table.
Meanwhile, down at Max's, a local hangout on Long Lake, Rich Kracum was talking with the bar owner about his personal quest to purchase the rest of the property. The owner encouraged Kracum to meet Kristo, so the two could consider ways to combine their efforts to save the land. It proved to be an excellent suggestion. The neighbors became an effective and dynamic team. "There's no way I would have been able to get this thing done without Steve," said Kracum. "He had put a ton of work into this deal."
The two conservation buyers formed a limited liability company and Kracum began negotiating with the developer. They cut a deal: The developer would retain the right to sell seven lots instead of 99 and split profits with the limited liability corporation. All seven lots and the remaining property would be subject to a conservation easement. The corporation would receive a 30-percent income tax deduction for up to six years on the easement, which was worth millions.
The conservation easement ensured development would include innovative approaches such as a lakeshore vegetative buffer and stormwater controls. The lakeshore and water quality would be protected, and the multi-layered canopy of the ancient forest and its wildlife habitat would continue to flourish.
"Our principal motivation was preserving the scenic beauty of the lake," said Kracum. "Another objective was public ownership of some of this land to prevent overdeveloping of that special corner of the lake."
A combination of funds from the state's Lake Protection Grants and Stewardship programs, sponsored by the West Wisconsin Land Trust, were used to purchase conservation easements on over 300 acres, including more than two miles of undeveloped shoreline. The DNR directly purchased over 200 acres with Stewardship and federal funds for an addition to the Ice Age Trail.
Without the aggressive efforts of Kristo and Kracum, Long Lake would have become another crowded waterfront community. That kind of development harms the natural environment: Bald eagles, osprey, and other birds of prey stop nesting in shoreline trees; wildlife that once roamed forests retreat to less disturbed places; and stormwater rushes unchecked off new roofs and driveways, eroding bluffs and contaminating lake water. With excessive development, existing neighbors who desire a natural shoreline see their property values decline as backyards sprawl onto shores and porch lights hide the stars. Kristo and Kracum played a crucial role in conserving the natural character of a special place.
A team effort on Silver Lake
Formerly a carp-infested, algae-clogged water, Silver Lake near Manitowoc has been put on the road to recovery through teamwork. The 69-acre lake is undergoing a $750,000 restoration to improve water clarity, restore the lake's ecological balance and revive panfish and gamefish populations. The restoration is being managed in partnership with the Manitowoc County Soil and Water Conservation Department, Holy Family Convent, the Manitowoc County Lakes Association, and the Silver Lake District. A little more than half of the funding has been provided through DNR Lake Protection Grants. The balance of the cash came from Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Wisconsin Waterways Commission, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The county, the Silver Lake District, the Manitowoc Fish and Game Club, and more than 10 other groups and individuals provided "match" through donated time and money.
The project started in 2001 when the group led by the Manitowoc County Soil and Water Conservation Department built an earthen berm to separate Silver Creek from Silver Lake, rerouting polluted runoff. The lake was treated with rotenone in fall 2003 to kill rough fish such as carp and bullheads, and treated with alum in spring 2004 to trap phosphorus in lake sediments. Starting in late spring 2004, the DNR began restocking the lake with largemouth bass, northern pike, walleye, yellow perch, bluegill, pumpkinseed sunfish and forage minnows. The Manitowoc County Soil and Water Conservation Department is restoring Silver Lake Park for public use, as well as planting natural vegetation along the park's extensive shoreline.
DNR testing shows the water quality has improved and populations of stocked fish survived through the fall. The aquatic plants haven't come back yet as hoped. Even so, "the Silver Lake project is an excellent example of how good work happens when many people and agencies work together," said Mary Gansberg, project biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.
Protecting little urban ponds
Tiedeman and Stricker ponds are tiny kettle ponds located in urban Middleton, just west of Madison, Wisconsin. Both ponds, renowned as birding hotspots for decades, are now ringed by nearby homes. Urban runoff drains into the ponds, and then into Lake Mendota. Invasive species, especially reed canary grass, grew around the ponds' shores. Flooding left mud flats and killed most of the mature trees adjacent to the ponds.
With the support of Lake Protection Grants, the City of Middleton partnered with many groups, among them the Friends of the Kettle Ponds and local schools, to restore the shorelines with native plants. The effort also includes an effective and fun educational program aimed at raising awareness and fostering future stewards of these waters. The program features interpretive signs, workshops, volunteer planning days, and a series of local bird and plant hikes. One local bird watcher shared his observation of sighting ten species of shorebirds in a single week in August!
Today, the little ponds are integrated into Middleton's stormwater management system, and runoff is filtered by buffering vegetation that ultimately helps protect Lake Mendota. "Middleton does a great job of mobilizing its volunteers," said Lisa Reas-Knapp, environmental consultant on the project. "We had little old ladies come out of their homes with their gardening tools to help do the plantings and they were so grateful the city was doing something to improve the condition of these ponds. The more hands involved in the projects, the more likely they will be maintained and managed in the future."
From countywide projects to tiny neighborhood ponds, lake grants can provide the seed money that moves communities past their frustrations to start developing local, grassroots solutions for their lakes and rivers. For those who are watching from the lakeshore, the riverbank or streamside as the waters they love become murky, overused or less appealing, these grant options provide a starting point to get involved and get going.
Carroll Schaal leads the lake partnership teams and Marilyn Leffler is an outreach specialist in DNR's Lakes and Wetlands Section. Richard Gauger contributed information for the Long Lake project descriptions.