By Jon Gaskell
Capital News Service
LANSING — Environmental experts are urging Michigan property owners to get rid of lakefront lawns and stone breakwalls in favor of a new approach to landscaping.
Lakescaping is a way to control shoreline erosion by moving inland lakes to a more natural state.
According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, replacing traditional sod lakefronts with native plants can also combat invasive species, improve wildlife habitats and save property owners money on upkeep.
“When dealing with lakes, it’s important to have as minimal an impact as possible,” said John Skubinna of the Department of Environmental Quality’s water resources division.
While property owners may be reluctant to obstruct lake views with tall vegetation, protecting lakes should trump aesthetic concerns, said Skubinna. “By just keeping conditions as nature intended, a lot of problems can be avoided.”
Erosion is chief among these problems, Skubinna said.
“Well-manicured turf lawns with their shallow roots don’t do a good job of keeping people’s yards from spilling into the lake. Long-rooted native species do a better job.”
Constructed erosion deterrents like breakwalls and heaps of rock called riprap are effective at preventing erosion but can also deflect waves elsewhere.
“You can build a breakwall but your neighbor better have one too,” said Jane Herbert, a senior water resource educator at the Kalamazoo County Michigan State University Extension.
“Eventually, all these walls turn lakes into bathtubs,” Herbert said. “Waves just bounce off them and can scour the bottom of lakes, which causes problems for fish habitats.”
Skubinna said shoreline plants do a better job of absorbing and dissipating energy from waves and rain.
Another threat to a lake’s health is runoff. Pesticides and fertilizers used by homeowners to maintain their lawns and gardens eventually wind up in lakes, where they can do severe damage to the ecosystem.
“Nitrogen and phosphorous from runoff cause large algae blooms,” Herbert said. “When that happens, it negatively affects oxygen levels, which will devastate fisheries.”
Skubinna said a buffer zone of long-rooted native plants keeps tainted sediment out of the water and dangerous chemicals out of lakes.
Lakescaping can also help combat the spread of invasive and nuisance species.
“The water serves as a conduit for the spread of invasive vegetation,” Herbert said. “If a homeowner encouraged the growth of native species, it would certainly keep invasive aquatic vegetation like reed canary grass, purple loosestrife and phragmites from gaining a foothold.”
Lakefront property owners could also be relieved of a more visible nuisance. Canada geese, which can damage lawns, avoid tall grasses and thick vegetation.
While natural vegetation makes a stout barrier against invaders, it can give a leg up to welcome species. For example, frogs and turtles looking for a change of scenery can’t climb walls of rock and riprap but a natural, gradual slope makes land more accessible for them.
“It really is critical to so many parts of the ecosystem to keep lakeshores as undisturbed and natural as possible,” Skubinna said. “You can see a difference in the amount of biodiversity in a healthy lake versus one where humans have had an impact.”
Not only does lakescaping decrease a lawn’s impact on the environment, it can also help decrease a lawn’s impact on a property owner’s wallet.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, installing turfgrass costs more than $12,000 per acre while restoring a lakeshore with native plants costs only $2,500 per acre.
After two to three years of growth, natural lakeshores require virtually no maintenance.
Interest in lakescaping is growing, said Herbert, with major public projects recently completed at Milford’s Kensington Metropark and Cadillac’s Lakefront Park. A major project at Grose Park in Chester Township will be installed in July.
Herbert also runs workshops through the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership to train contractors in lakescaping techniques.
“There have been a lot of contractors and landscapers looking to learn how to do this,” Herbert said. “We’ve trained over 100 contractors from all over the state and about 45-50 more are going to be trained soon.”
One of those contractors is Ron Niewoonder of Kalamazoo. He said his landscaping business, E. Niewoonder and Sons, is seeing interest from customers.
His company is working on two lakescaping projects on Indian Lake in Vicksburg and West Lake in Portage.
“It’s a fairly new concept in this application,” Niewoonder said. “We’ve always used plants in yards to control erosion but never considered aquatic plants.”
I live in a private community on Lake Huron. This association was established back in the 1920’s as a family resort community with park and private beach. Over the years, stone and cement jetties and walls were placed to “protect “ the beach area, only to get buried year after year, then as cyclic water levels rise and fall, sometimes our beach looks like a burial ground for old cement. Recently, some people living in our community have taken it upon themselves to place a non engineered metal and cement patio in front of their home directly on the beach, our township says they are the core of engineers and they don’t handle that, EPA does, EPA says the opposite! So who really does handle this? I thought that’s what a core if engineers did! Apparently Fort Gratiot township doesn’t care about the lake shore, nor does the EPA.
Lost 4 feet of my property on Lake Huron..live in Presque Isle county. We have no a clue what to do, where do we go to ask for help need a break wall..three lots down their walls were put in years ago by the Army Corp of engineers.
i am unable to open the link above but would like to get the publication as we are rebuilding and landscaping on lake ontario and have natural boulders but want to choose plants to grow along and between them right on the lake please let me know how to get your manual thanks john
I am so disappointed that more and more permits are allowed for these cement break walls that resemble MDOT highway dividers to be used on our beautiful Grand Lake in Presque Isle county. Why can’t they just say NO to these ugly eyesores which are of no benefit.
Indeed. It sounds like another example of: “Do as I say, not as I do”. I still want to convert my lakefront property to softshore, but how about the DEQ makes sure THEY do the same?
Note to Janet: You said – “Very sad that even the State of Michigan is doing this to their own property.” With all due respect and no malice intended, Janet: It’s OUR property – WE all pay for the upkeep.
Steel breakwalls are the worst–and the state routinely approves them. How sad. There seems to be no leadership and no common sense coming from the state nowadays.
Oh my! When I read this article, I was fired up to call the DEQ and find out why, at Black Lake in Presque Isle County, the STATE has piled up truckloads of rocks on the shoreline to stop wave action and “save” the shoreline! No natural shorelines at Black Lake/Onaway State Park or at the State campgrounds. I spoke to so many people at the state level, it made me dizzy – and no one would help or even barely listen to me. I kept getting shunted to another person, another voice mail, etc. They also have approved permits for horrible shoreline steel breakwalls and concrete walls on Black Lake and the Rainy River. It takes so much energy to just talk to people in government about this, now I know why people just give up on it. Very sad that even the State of Michigan is doing this to their own property.
Well what do you know? It seems mother nature knows best. You should see how ugly the Niagara River is. That’s a result of 50 plus years of trying to make up for what the New York Power Authority has done by stopping the ice flow. Perhaps the biggest example ever of man interfering with the natural order of things. The one simple action of stopping the normal ice flow has all but killed the Lower Great Lakes and made the Niagara River look like a swamp. We have miles of broken concrete and construction debris dumped along our shores. It would be funny if it weren’t so ugly. Yet when you ask anyone looking at it what they think about it, they believe it is normal to have that. The collective action of all these lake front property owners will do in their little paradise. Someone in charge should step in and say “Enough”. Read http://www.bantheboom.com for more on my battle. JBB
Hi, Michigan Sea Grant worked with the DEQ to produce a homeowner’s introduction to natural landscaping on their lakefront properties. You can order print copies (pay for shipping) or download them for free here: