Better Lakes for Tomorrow

by Jeremy Price
Biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife

NOTE: This article was previously published in LakeLine, Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring 2009 by the North American Lake Management Society (NALMS).  Permission to re-publish is granted by NALMS.

Shoreline Management An Overview of Shoreline Management Efforts in Indiana
Looking back, I find many of my fondest childhood memories were tightly connected to water. Whether it was catching bluegill from the front seat of my dad’s 14-foot fishing boat or jumping from the end of a pier to cool off on a sweltering August day, the call of the lake was undeniable. It’s a call that many feel – and for good reason. In an age when the stresses of life come at us from every direction, time at the lake offers the solace we need to get through another week.

Kuhn Lake, Kosciusko County
Figure 1. A pair of sandhill cranes explore the littoral zone of Kuhn Lake in Kosciusko County. Photo: Bob Peterson.

This call has prompted many to take up full-time residence along the shorelines of our lakes. The small cabins and cottages of yesteryear have dwindled in number, giving way to larger homes and condominiums. More and more people are heeding the call to the water’s edge; but, at what cost?

Whether we like it or not, we cannot inhabit riparian areas without having some impact on the quality and functionality of the ecosystem that draws us there in the first place. Construction of roads and homes and conversion of natural areas to residential lawns is merely the beginning. Inevitably, our well-intentioned desire to enhance the view from the back porch or improve the recreational utility of lakefront property results in alterations to the shoreline and nearshore areas of the lake. Often the impacts become much larger than we would anticipate.

The shallow water area of lakes, or littoral zone, is typically the most biologically productive and diverse in terms of plant species and structural habitat complexity. These factors combine to provide a wide array of habitat niches which are filled by a variety of aquatic organisms that all play a vital role in the health of aquatic ecosystems (Figure 1). A common and seemingly harmless practice such as the removal of native vegetation and woody debris results in fragmentation and simplification of nearshore habitat. Generally, when implemented on a small scale, this type of activity has negligible impacts on lake resources as a whole. However, as residential development increases along the margins and more of these practices are employed by an ever-growing number of riparian owners, the cumulative effects of incremental losses result in degradation of resources including natural scenic beauty, floral and faunal communities, and water quality. This example clearly shows that management of human activities affecting this important resource must be conducted judiciously in order to preserve its quality for generations yet to come.

Bulkhead Seawalls
Figure 2. Bulkhead seawalls reflect wave energy and create barriers for many aquatic animals.

Regulation of Lake Construction
In Indiana, major steps toward protecting lakes were taken in the first half of the twentieth century. Most notably, the state’s authority to regulate lake construction activities on Public Freshwater Lakes was established by the state legislature in 1947 with the passing of the Lakes Preservation Act (Indiana Code 14-26-2). Deeply rooted in the Public Trust Doctrine, the Lakes Preservation Act established publicly held rights and charged the state with holding public freshwater lakes in trust for its citizens. Under this law, a process was also established for permitting of numerous types of projects including excavation, placement of fill, and placement or modification of structures within the waters of the lake.

As any permitting process should be, this is far more than just a regulatory hurdle for property owners to overcome. Under this process, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) conducts a comprehensive review of proposed projects to ensure that unreasonable detrimental impacts do not result and that the public trust is upheld. Typically, up to five divisions of the IDNR are solicited for comments regarding permit applications on issues such as public safety, recreational impacts, and biological concerns. Applications that are likely to cause unreasonable harm face denial unless changed to reduce the impact. If impacts from the project are deemed reasonable, a permit is issued and the project may proceed as planned.

One of the most common impacts riparian owners impose upon lakes is shoreline alteration. Seawalls of every type have long been used to protect shorelines, from the smallest inland lakes to the most battered coastal shores. On the inland lakes of Indiana, typical seawall applications request one of three general types: bulkhead, glacial stone, or bioengineered seawalls. Each, when properly designed, can be very effective in controlling the erosional forces imposed by wave action. Each method has strengths and weaknesses that must be weighed when determining which to use on a particular shoreline.

Glacial Stone Wall
Figure 3. Glacial stone seawalls provide shoreline armoring while causing less damage to habitat and natural aesthetics.

When people hear the word “seawall,” most picture bulkheads. These are hard-armor structures that create a vertical or near-vertical ledge at the interface of land and water (Figure 2). Bulkheads are most often comprised of concrete or steel, although other materials such as vinyl are sometimes used. These walls are very effective at halting erosion and retaining soil landward of the structure. Due to their strength and toughness, they are best used in locations where erosion threatens infrastructure or where severe erosion occurs due to high wave energy. However, there are also a number of drawbacks associated with their use. Reflectance of wave energy may exacerbate erosion problems on adjacent shorelines and result in scour of the lakebed immediately lakeward of the wall. Where bulkheads are widespread, a “bathtub effect” may occur, thus creating irregular, choppy wave patterns that inhibit boating and other recreation. On the biological side, the vertical face of bulkhead seawalls creates an insurmountable barrier that prevents the ingress and egress of animal species, such as frogs and turtles, requiring both aquatic and terrestrial habitats to complete their life cycle.

While bulkheads are sometimes necessary to achieve shoreline stability, the far more lake-friendly options of glacial stone and bioengineered seawalls are adequate to suit the needs of most shorelines of smaller inland lakes. In glacial stone seawall construction, geotextile is laid along the shoreline and covered with layers of 8-inch to 12-inch rounded field stone. The stone gradually slopes to the lakebed, (Figure 3) creating a profile similar to a natural shoreline. In this design, the stone provides structural armoring, while the geotextile prevents erosion from occurring through the interstitial spaces between the rocks. Bioengineering is a technique that combines structural, biological, and ecological concepts to construct living structures (plant communities) for erosion control. More specifically, native plants are used in conjunction with coconut fiber logs, turf reinforcement mats, or other structural materials to create a “living wall” that controls erosion while still appearing and functioning much like a natural shoreline (Figure 4).

Bioengineered Seawalls
Figure 4. Bioengineered seawalls effectively control erosion while still providing a natural appearance and wildlife habitat.

Shoreline Classification
Prior to the late 1990s, DNR biologists were faced with the difficult task of assessing the impacts of proposed projects without clear and specific guidelines regarding what were reasonable impacts to the resource. With the status of shorelines being quite variable from lake to lake across Indiana’s natural lakes region and different staff reviewing projects in different districts, it became apparent that more formal guidance was necessary. Work soon began to develop a system for deciding what types of alterations would be permissible for a given site. The system must strike a balance between the ecological sensitivity of an area and the amount of impact deemed “reasonable” in each case. It must also be unambiguous, to ensure that applications are reviewed consistently across the region. With these needs in mind, a method of classifying shorelines was developed and formally adopted into Indiana’s administrative code for lake construction (312 IAC 11) in 1999. Under this system, biologists have specific and measureable criteria regarding wetland vegetation (emergent and rooted, floatingleaf plant species) and prior shoreline disturbance that allow a classification to be assigned to any shoreline. Initially, three classifications were described:significant wetland, area of special concern, or developed area. An additional category, natural shoreline, was added in 2005 to protect stretches of unaltered shorelines that lacked wetland vegetation.

Significant wetland is considered the most sensitive of the shoreline classifications. Under the legal definition, significant wetlands are transitional areas between terrestrial and deepwater habitats that also contain one or more of a number of characteristics including: at least 2,500 sq. ft. of wetland vegetation, adjacent wetlands designated by a federal or state government agency, or plant or animal species that are rare, threatened, or endangered in the state of Indiana. Significant wetlands are often areas that remain largely unperturbed by development. However, they sometimes occur in areas where development has taken place historically but were allowed to recover.

Natural shorelines are an equally sensitive and precious resource. According to Indiana’s administrative rules, a natural shoreline is considered a continuous stretch of unaltered shoreline where there is at least 250 ft. between lawful permanent structures (i.e., seawalls). Years of unchecked development have left many Indiana lakes nearly devoid of natural shorelines.

Because significant wetlands and natural shorelines are considered to be the most sensitive classifications, they are also the most restricted concerning allowable options for shoreline stabilization. Only bioengineered materials are approvable for use in these areas. This restriction is intended to preserve the quality of habitat and the natural scenic beauty of these areas.

Area of special concern (AOSC) is an intermediate shoreline classification. While more developed and typically less sensitive than aforementioned classifications, AOSCs provide some of the functionality of shorelines from the lesser impacted classifications despite having been fragmented or altered in some way. Legally, AOSCs are described as having at least one of the following characteristics: more than 625 sq. ft. of emergent or floating leaf wetland vegetation, a unique habitat identified by the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves, or an altered shoreline where bulkhead seawalls are at least 250 ft. apart. Due to the limited alterations found in the vicinity of shorelines with this classification, natural scenic beauty and habitat are still important considerations. On the other hand, AOSCs are not pristine areas, either. Therefore, the impacts deemed reasonable along shorelines of this type include construction of both bioengineering and glacial stone seawalls.

Retaining Wall Installation
Figure 5. An example of a retaining wall installation.

Developed areas are the most highly impacted lakeshore environments. Shorelines of this class are either nearly or completely devoid of wetland vegetation and lie between and in close proximity to bulkhead seawalls. Due to the highly impacted nature of these areas and the low likelihood of natural shoreline recovery, they are deemed least sensitive and offer the most latitude in seawall design. This is the only shoreline classification in Indiana where bulkhead seawalls are permissible. However, installation of softer armoring techniques such as glacial stone seawalls is encouraged where feasible.

Nearly ten years after first being implemented, Indiana’s shoreline classification system has proved to be quite successful. Biologists now have a tool to aid them in making consistent permit recommendations. Property owners and consultants have more managed expectations of what type of alterations are permissible prior to submitting applications. Most importantly, the rules hold the line on shoreline development, thus preventing further losses of habitat in our lakes.

DNR Shoreline Jurisdiction
Figure 6. DNR shoreline jurisdiction (in green cross-hatch) (a) before and (b) after the retaining wall loophole was closed. Examples of one retaining wall that would require a permit and two that would not (c).

Sometimes in our greatest successes we also discover hidden weaknesses. One such inadequacy in the Lakes Preservation Act was discovered following the implementation of the shoreline classification system. Following denial of his application for a bulkhead seawall in a significant wetland, a riparian owner installed a concrete retaining wall two feet landward of the legal shoreline. Because IDNR had no jurisdiction there, no violation had occurred. As time passed, the existing natural shoreline eroded and eventually disappeared altogether, leaving the retaining wall at the water’s edge. News of this loophole quickly spread and several contractors began to install retaining walls, sometimes just inches landward of the legal shoreline (Figure 5). In 2006, at the recommendation of the Lakes Management Work Group, a law was enacted giving IDNR jurisdiction below the legal lake level within ten feet of the legal shoreline (Figure 6). This effectively closed the loophole and ended the installation of retaining walls as a means to obtaining a bulkhead seawall.

Striving for Improvement
While rules and regulations play an important role in resource management, the long-term health of our lakes is equally dependent on the decisions riparian owners make in managing their shorelines. The current construction rules have essentially placed a ceiling on the number of bulkhead seawalls that that can be constructed across the Indiana’s natural lake region, but in managing a natural resource, the status quo should never be considered “good enough.” As the steward of these public resources, IDNR has sought various ways of improving conditions in our lakes.

One approach involved adopting a new rule that allows a lawfully placed bulkhead seawall to be “refaced” with glacial stone without acquiring a permit from the department. Because the new face of the seawall has characteristics of a more natural shoreline, it benefits the lake. In addition to being far less expensive than replacing an existing seawall, the glacial stone reface rule offers a simplified process as well. Thus, the rule facilitates a more lake-friendly choice by riparian owners. Overall, the idea has been well-received and appears to be growing in popularity. One local lake organization, the Lake Maxinkuckee Environmental Council, has even spearheaded its own effort to encourage its use. Their program collects field stone from area farmers and then distributes it to participants for only the cost of hauling and labor. While just over two years old, the fledgling effort has already resulted in more than approximately 20 glacial stone refaces covering around a quarter-mile of the Lake Maxinkuckee shoreline.

IDNR has also escalated outreach efforts across the natural lakes region. Biologists frequently appear at meetings to educate lake associations or other stakeholder groups about sound lake management practices. The newest initiative by the IDNR’s Lake and River Enhancement Program promotes “lakescaping.” Lakescaping is a concept originally developed by Minnesota DNR that encourages use of vegetative buffers to enhance riparian habitat. In addition to providing benefits to the lake, these buffers offer an aesthetically pleasing alternative to traditional landscape design. These are just two examples on ongoing efforts to improve lake habitat by engaging riparian owners at the local level. The key for success in both cases is establishing partnerships with stakeholder groups and equipping them to be the torchbearers for the programs that will benefit the resources they hold dear.

Better Lakes for Tomorrow
In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold writes, “All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” The truth in this statement is troubling, because it reminds us that while we take great pleasure in our lake resources, we also cannot help but to alter their natural character. However, with the increasing environmental awareness of today’s society, we’re continually learning new ways to reduce our impacts on natural systems. Through innovative thinking and diligent regulatory and educational efforts, we can find the balance between enjoying our lakes today and preserving them for tomorrow.

Jeremy Price Jeremy Price is a biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife. His efforts there focus on compliance and enforcement activities pertaining to construction on Indiana’s public freshwater lakes.

 

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