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Great Lakes Article:

Restoring the shore
Dave Olson
Associated Press

ON WALL LAKE, Minn. - Four years ago, Jeff and RoxAnne Wachlarowicz planted a slew of seedlings along their shoreline on Wall Lake near Fergus Falls.

In all, more than 50 varieties of wildflowers, prairie grasses and sedges went into the ground, including blue giant hyssop, foxtail sedge and black-eyed Susans.

Today, the shoreline is awash with swaying grasses and bobbing blossoms.

It's a beautiful model, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials say, of how to buffer lakes from the potentially harmful effects of nutrient and sediment runoff, which can be magnified by lakeshore development.

Jeff Wachlarowicz became a believer after researching alternatives to the urban lawns and sandy beaches many lakeshore owners choose.

"Everybody has this mentality to come out and have it look like your lawn in the back yard," he said. "You kill all the weeds. You tear out all the bulrushes. You bring in sand. You're killing this little microenvironment for everything in the food chain.

"People are complaining they want better water," he said. "They want better fishing. In reality, what we're doing, ecologically speaking, is murder to the lake."

Officials for the Minnesota DNR say water quality in many of the state's lakes is reaching a crisis point.

The department plans to hold workshops around Minnesota during the next two years in hopes of convincing real estate agents that a natural shoreline such as the Wachlarowiczes' can make a property more desirable to buyers.

DNR officials even sell a "Restore Your Shore" CD-ROM, released last year, to teach people about the benefits of restoration projects and how they can start one.

What is harmful to water quality, state officials say, are nutrients and sediments carried into lakes by rain runoff.

Initial signs of trouble include algae blooms, which can turn a lake into a sea of green.

Eventually, nutrient-gorged weeds and sediments will fill a lake, turning it into land.

It's a natural aging process that takes thousands of years, but it can be accelerated by the construction of homes, patios, roads and other impervious surfaces that increase runoff into lakes.

A house with a suburban-style lawn boosts phosphorus runoff sevenfold and sedimentation by a factor of 20, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

A "buffer zone" of native plants, both on the shore and in the water, slows the pollution stream and keeps lakes looking cleaner, said Dave Friedl, area fisheries manager for the Minnesota DNR.

The roots of lawn grass reach only inches into the soil. Native plants, Friedl said, sink roots as deep as 15 feet and hold soil on the bank while soaking up nutrients before they get to the lake. The vegetation also provides habitat for butterflies, birds and animals while discouraging geese from trooping onto yards.

The Minnesota DNR followed its own "restore the shore" philosophy at historic Dunton Locks, near Detroit Lakes, where it converted a lock and spillway system into a natural rapids between Muskrat Lake and Lake Sallie.

The project had a dual mission - to remove a fish barrier and to protect the shoreline, Friedl said.

Before the change, he said, there was "lawn right up to the concrete seawall. It was exactly what we were telling folks they shouldn't do."

The project's construction was completed in 2001. A year later, about 6,000 plants, many of them prairie grasses, were sprinkled along the shoreline and fishing area.

Once established, the grass is there for good, Friedl said.

"It can take a pounding. It can take fire," he said. "It can take buffalo stomping it down."

Aquatic plants also are important guardians of water quality.

"If we could just stop the loss of bulrushes on our lakes we'd be making a big improvement," Friedl said.

Bulrushes sprout from the edge of lakes and ponds like long, green whiskers. Often bunched together, they're sometimes spread thin like a five-o'clock shadow.

Jeff Wachlarowicz was cleaning his shoreline recently when he found "a ton of bulrushes" had washed ashore.

"It pained me," he said. "Somebody had been cutting bulrushes. Bulrushes are like your septic system on the lake. They're filtering out impurities. They're reoxygenating the water. They're providing environment for fish, frogs, bugs."

The Wachlarowiczes planted their buffer zone with the help of nine friends and approximately $5,000 from the Minnesota DNR. The agency helps fund a number of demonstration projects each year and uses the sites to sell others on shoreline restoration.

The Wachlarowiczes applied to become a pilot site in 1999 and they, along with 11 other property owners, were chosen out of 250 applicants. The Wachlarowicz property has been popular. During the past couple of years more than 200 people have stopped by to take a look.

The Minnesota DNR doesn't expect property owners to convert their entire lake frontage into wilderness area.

"We normally tell people to consider converting perhaps 60 percent of their shoreline into buffer zone," said Carrol Henderson, DNR nongame wildlife program supervisor.

Fertilizer containing phosphorous is a major threat to lake water quality, Henderson said, adding that most soil in Minnesota already is phosphorous rich and doesn't need fertilizing.

"People who don't like looking at green water lakes have to realize that green is coming from the fertilizer they put on their lawn," he said.

The DNR uses lake associations to get the word out about shoreline restoration. The idea is catching on little by little, said Mary Schutz, president of the 35-member Becker County Coalition of Lake Associations.

Each year, the Becker County COLA puts lakeshore restoration information in its newsletter.

The group also offers members the chance to buy trees and shrubs from the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District for a nominal fee.

Participation in that program has remained low, Schutz said.

Jeff Wachlarowicz becomes energized when he talks about his buffer zone.

It has three main areas: the upland, comprised of drier plants and grasses; the intermediate zone, which has some waterloving plants; and the aquatic zone, which includes lily pads.

The Wachlarowiczes said they wanted lily pads because of their beauty and the habitat they provide for fish.

However, the couple couldn't introduce plants that weren't native to the lake, and when they went looking they couldn't find a lily pad anywhere.

The DNR checked and discovered lily pads were reported on the lake in 1974, opening the door for the Wachlarowiczes to reintroduce them.

"People took them out. They didn't want them," Jeff Wachlarowicz said. "There aren't lily pads anymore, except for the 24 plants on my property."

Glancing at the path in front of him, Wachlarowicz was overjoyed to find vegetation encroaching on the walking trail through his buffer zone. "They're taking over!" he said. "This is exactly what we wanted to happen."

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