A healthy shore is a happy lake

Shoreline landscaping workshops: April 18 and May 8

As Tara Iyer reaches down to pull a weed from her lakeshore garden along Green Lake in Chisago County, a swallowtail butterfly alights on a nearby flower blossom. A gust of wind sends the blossom with its passenger fluttering gently up and down. Tara’s husband Shravan takes notice. “It’s so amazing seeing what’s here – butterflies, bees, birds – there’s so much life on our shoreline now,” he says.

Tiger swallowtail butterfly on marsh milkweed. Photo by Barbara Heitkamp.

Butterflies and bees have also discovered John and Joyce Wilking’s Green Lake shoreline garden. A luxurious mix of native plants, with their blossoms of purple, yellow, white, and pink, are teeming with insects darting back and forth between them. “I love being able to look down from the house in the morning and see all the different pops of color from the garden,” Joyce says.

A native shoreline planting on Green Lake in Chisago County. Photo by Barbara Heitkamp.

Mickey Carlson doesn’t have many bees or blossoms on her Kroon Lake shoreline yet – she planted in the fall and her plants were still only inches tall by summer of 2022 – but that hasn’t deterred her from hanging a, “Please excuse the weeds, we’re feeding the bees,” sign in her garden. “I like the thought of doing something that makes a difference for the environment, but I am also excited that the plants can help to reduce erosion on my steep shoreline when they get established,” she says.

Mickey Carlson of Kroon Lake placed a sign in her new native shoreline planting while waiting for the plants to grow up and fill in. Photo by Barbara Heitkamp.

In the Land of 10,000 lakes, many lakeshore landowners are turning toward natural solutions that combine bio-engineering with deep-rooted, native plants to stabilize the land along the water’s edge while also maintaining connected corridors of habitat for beneficial insects, fish, birds, frogs, turtles, and other kinds of wildlife. Recent data shows that more work is needed, however, to save Minnesota’s lakes.   

The deep roots of native plants help to stabilize shorelines and prevent erosion. When landowners replace these shoreline plants with turf, the soil loss can be dramatic.

This winter, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) debuted a new tool that evaluates multiple factors to assess the overall health of watersheds across the state (www.dnr.state.mn.us/whaf). Looking at the Lower St. Croix River Watershed as a whole, from Pine City all the way down to Hastings, the DNR assigned a watershed health score of 59/100, with startlingly low ratings for terrestrial habitat quality (16/100) and terrestrial habitat connectivity (19/100). Not surprisingly, the metro Mississippi River watershed ranks even worse, with an overall health score of 42/100 and terrestrial habitat and connectivity scores of 8/100 and 10/100, respectively.

A report card from the Minnesota DNR’s Watershed Health Assessment Framework shows dismal scores for terrestrial habitat and connectivity in the Lower St. Croix and metro Mississippi River watersheds.

As shoreline and terrestrial habitat vanishes, so too does the biodiversity in our local lakes, including several that are well-known for excellent water quality. Local residents and scientists alike are seeing fewer fish, less diversity in the insects and aquatic invertebrates, and cascading impacts to the overall ecosystem. In 2022, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency added Bone Lake (Scandia), Lake Jane (Lake Elmo) and eight lakes in the Chisago Chain of Lakes to the state’s impaired waters list due to biodiversity loss, and warned that Big Carnelian (May Twp.) and Big Marine (Scandia) are at high risk as well.

The most important action that lakeshore landowners can take to protect the fish, birds, and wildlife that we love is to maintain terrestrial and shoreline habitat where it still exists and begin working to enhance low-quality habitat with a wider variety of native plants.  

This native shoreline planting in the Rice Creek Watershed District is both beautiful and functional. It also preserves space for water access and a dock.

This spring, the East Metro Water Education Program and Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership will co-host two free webinars. Protect Your Shore (Tuesday, April 18, 6:30-8pm) will focus on the benefits of native shorelines; shoreline rules and regulations; seasonal maintenance; establishing native species to improve shoreline habitat; and resources and funding available for landowners. Learn more and register at tinyurl.com/protectyourshore

Restore Your Shore (Monday, May 8, 6:30-8pm) will explore bio-engineering strategies that harness the power of nature to guard against erosion while also restoring habitat.  This workshop will showcase lakeshore design examples that incorporate pathways, docks, and access to the water, while also providing healthy habitat for pollinators, fish, and wildlife. Learn more and register at tinyurl.com/restoreyourshore.

This week’s article comes to you from Barbara Heitkamp, a water educator for the East Metro Water Resource Education Program and Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership. Subscribe to Barbara’s blog at https://knickpoints.blog for articles about transition and change in the Lower St. Croix watershed.