Restoring the shore
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
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
What is harmful to water quality, state officials say,
are nutrients and sediments carried into lakes by rain
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
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
"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
"If we could just stop the loss of bulrushes on
our lakes we'd be making a big improvement," Friedl
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
"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
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
"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
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
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."