Living on Michigan's inland lakes

scenic inland lake in MichiganEleven-thousand inland lakes are estimated to call Michigan home, with a good handful covering 1,000 acres or more.

With all that water comes great opportunity - boating, fishing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, vacationing and even living! Many of Michigan's inland lakes have private residences on them, serving as respites that are enjoyed seasonally or year-round.

Michigan has a long history with lakes. Our landscape was designed by the paths glaciers took about 12,000 years ago. While many of the lakes of those days might still be the lakes we have today, they look incredibly different now than when they were first formed or even relative to what they looked like a century ago.

All of those lakefront residents dramatically changed the landscape, literally.

"Most lakes were previously surrounded by wooded shorelines with aquatic plants and fallen trees very common in the nearshore area. Water quality was typically higher, and of course invasive species would not have been present," explained Joe Nohner, the Department of Natural Resources' inland lakes habitat analyst and Midwest Glacial Lakes Partnership coordinator. "But the lakes we see today have been dramatically affected by a variety of factors - and that change is important to recognize."

There's no denying people want to live on Michigan's lakes and the number of houses and cabins on them is constantly increasing. All that infrastructure has an impact on lakes in the form of eroding shorelands, increased nutrients in lakes, and fewer plants and woody habitat in the water and on the shore. One way the DNR and other entities work to help property owners understand those impacts and potentially rectify them is through the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership, which is now celebrating its 10th year.

"The neat thing about this partnership is that it represents state agencies and other organizations taking a proactive approach toward lake management in collaboration with property owners," Nohner said. "With regard to natural shorelines, we historically have been in a more reactive mode as we provide feedback on permit applications, receive complaints about fish habitat loss, and respond to similar concerns that arise. But now we're actively developing guidelines, best management practices, and other resources of value to shoreline property owners so they can take action. Whether a property owner is a do-it-yourself type or more comfortable hiring a contractor, we're providing resources to help them make their shoreline properties places where people, wildlife and fishes can better co-exist."

Nohner's focus as the DNR's inland lakes habitat analyst is to make connections for owners between their property and the health of the available habitat for fish and other aquatic resources.

"You first have to recognize what peoples' goals for their property are as they balance their activities with the benefits to fish, wildlife, erosion and other aspects on their property," he explains. "You want to help them work toward those goals to more effectively achieve them, while being mindful of budget and other restrictions."

While natural shorelines and waters help to increase populations of fish, frogs, turtles and other wildlife, they also provide benefits that might be unexpected. For example, Canada geese are sometimes perceived to be a nuisance as their droppings pile up in the same lawns that property owners may want to use for their barbeque or yard games. Natural shorelines actually deter these geese, because geese will avoid walking through natural vegetation that could contain predators. Even if a property owner has little interest in increasing the fish and wildlife populations along their shore, the actions they take could prevent a goose invasion and have bonus benefits for fish and wildlife.

"A natural shoreline helps to address the goose problem which also helps to address nutrient run-off issues and provide habitat for fish, frogs, birds and other species."

That sounds like a win-win! Participation in the program by property owners is increasing, and the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership is dedicated to educating and informing them of the value of implementing natural shoreline components for an overall, healthier lake.

"We try to explain that every little bit counts," Nohner said. "Property owners may only have a hundred feet of shoreline, but simple projects, like rain gardens or no-mow zones along the shoreline, help out fish and wildlife significantly. We see that once a property owner takes one or two of these steps, they often come back to add on to their improvements. We also find the early adopters on lakes are leaders for their neighbors, who see the example and are inspired to make changes on their own properties."

Are you considering a natural shoreline? There are plenty of tools and resources available online to help! Check out the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership's website at www.mishorelinepartnership.org, this neat program to evaluate the environmental health of shoreland properties and recognize stewards of more natural properties at www.mishorelandstewards.org, or a helpful online directory of organizations dedicated to lake stewardship at www.mymlsa.org/organization-directory.