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MN Lakes Project: Ditch Fancy Yardwork to Protect Water

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Organizers behind Minnesota's Lake Steward project say a well-maintained lawn along a shoreline might provide stunning visuals, but it also can harm water quality. (Adobe Stock)
Organizers behind Minnesota's Lake Steward project say a well-maintained lawn along a shoreline might provide stunning visuals, but it also can harm water quality. (Adobe Stock)
 By Mike Moen - Producer, Contact
March 31, 2021

BRAINERD, Minn. - In the coming weeks, many Minnesotans will flock to their lake homes - and in some areas, they might be quizzed about yard-maintenance habits. A laid-back approach might get them a passing grade for protecting water quality.

A couple years ago, Dorothy Whitmer reconsidered the way she maintained her shoreline property along Gull Lake after she failed an email quiz from a lake association in another state. It indicated she was doing "too much yardwork" near the shore. Whitmer said she realized that chores such as mowing could be harmful, and decided to change her approach.

"So, when you actually plant more trees or put in a really great buffer zone and stop using fertilizers and pesticides," she said, "it is unbelievable what happens: All the wildlife comes back."

Researchers have said a more natural landscape near the shore can prevent harmful runoff into the lake. Whitmer created a Lake Steward program for the Gull Chain of Lakes Association, where residents can take the quiz and get a site assessment. She's working with Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates to get more associations around the state on board. An online training seminar will be held tomorrow evening.

Paul Radomski, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources research scientist, applauded these efforts. He's done research in this area and noted that a manicured lawn near the shore allows seven to nine times more phosphorus to enter the lake. He pointed to property owners taking their vision of a suburban yard with them on vacation.

"It's changing the habitat around their shorelines," he said, "such that they're decreasing fish and wildlife habitat."

Radomski said the DNR adopted vegetation standards in the 1970s to protect lakes from such activity, but it's difficult to enforce because state and local authorities have many other pressing priorities. He said he feels that's why getting lake associations to take charge could have a greater impact.

"These kinds of programs will help to move the social norm to something that's a lot more sustainable," he said.

Convincing property owners that less yardwork will allow for more relaxation at the lake could be another selling point.

Disclosure: Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Public Lands/Wilderness, Sustainable Agriculture, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
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