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Every "improvement" on a lakeshore, even small ones, changes the water and the land. Each homeowner, business and town reworking a beach, a lawn or a pier alters the shore in ways that add up.
In their natural state, Wisconsin waters are protected by thick and diverse shoreline vegetation. Development often changes the face of that shoreland buffer. In fact, the pace of change on Wisconsin's waterfront over the last 30 years has skyrocketed. At the same time, scientists have learned ways to minimize some of those impacts by protecting a 50-foot swath of land nearest the water as well as the first 20-30 feet of the nearshore water and lakebed.
Paul Cunningham, a DNR fish ecologist, says research in Wisconsin and elsewhere reveals the cumulative effects of individual lake and stream projects harm water quality and diminish the waterway's natural beauty.
Why are lakeshore properties so popular? Dr. Pat Shifferd of Northland College asked citizens why they own lakefront property. The top three reasons: a peaceful and tranquil view, watching wildlife, and fishing.
Today, nearly 80 percent of the land bordering Wisconsin lakes and rivers is privately owned and each year, thousands of shoreland parcels are developed. Since the 1960s, the number of homes on northern Wisconsin lakes has increased an average of 216 percent. Homes are larger and the number of people seeking permits has tripled since 1990 to alter waterways by dredging to create a sandy beach, building a seawall or installing a large pier.
To protect lakeshore habitats from these activities, Wisconsin relies on regulation, voluntary conservation efforts, grants, public investments, and education.
As early as the 1960s, Wisconsin developed statewide standards to guide development near lakes and streams to protect water quality, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, and natural beauty by setting minimum lot sizes, minimum set-back for building near the water's edge, restrictions on clear-cutting close to the water, and limits on filling, grading and vegetation removal.
Counties can adopt the statewide rules (called NR 115) or develop their own ordinances as long as they are more protective than the state standards.
Chapter 30 of Wisconsin's statutes is another tool to balance public and private rights to navigate and use shorelands, explains Mary Ellen Vollbrecht, the DNR chief of rivers and habitat protection section. Chapter 30 requires permits to ensure that alterations such as bridges, piers and bank grading are done in ways that avoid harm to lakes and streams.
The State of Wisconsin is making substantial financial investments in its public waters as well. To date, 170 Lake Protection Grants totaling more than $12 million have been used to buy or lease sensitive lands surrounding lakes.
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program buys, protects and restores wildlife habitat; preserves high quality natural areas; and protects water quality and fish habitat. The legislature and governor renewed the Stewardship Program as part of the 1999-2001 state budget bill, increasing Stewardship funding from $23.1 million to $46 million each year, for another 10 years.
The Northern Initiative – a collaboration of government, nonprofit groups and citizens – also promotes education, voluntary conservation, technical assistance and land acquisition to safeguard northern lakes and shoreland.
On-water recreation also stresses shorelines and shorelands. The number of registered boats in Wisconsin, for example, has nearly doubled since the 1960s from 303,000 in 1969 to 564,000 in 1999. Increased boating traffic and bigger boats can harm the nearshore area as propellers stir the water, disturb fish habitat, and uproot aquatic plants. Boat wakes can disrupt wildlife and cause shoreline erosion. To minimize these impacts, boaters must observe "no-wake" rules.
Explosive growth in personal watercraft (PWCs or jet ski-like products) poses another concern. From 1991-1998, in-state PWC registrations rose from 6,500 to 33,000 vehicles.
The newest toy to hit Wisconsin waterways, the water trampoline, also has spurred complaints that the devices are eyesores, navigation hazards, and may harm fish habitat.
Education is a critical tool in programs to protect aquatic habitat. People need to be introduced and reminded of building and recreational regulations such as slow-no-wake rules. DNR water managers also work with UW-Extension and private groups to provide educational materials to landscapers, contractors and landowners on ways to minimize shoreline habitat damage.
Just as cumulative actions can harm the water's edge, cumulative action can restore the shoreland and shoreline as well. Preserving or planting shoreland buffers, careful siting of essential boat mooring, reasonable recreation and knowlegeable users can protect the fragile zone where lane meets water.
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.