Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Low water: good and bad for aquatic plants

Cambridge, Minn. – Many lakes in Minnesota had low water levels
entering the fall. But nowhere were they as low as in east-central
Minnesota. While it’s been a challenge for anglers, lakeshore
property owners, and fish managers alike, there also are some
potential benefits to low water.

There also are plenty of threats.

While exposed lakebed can stimulate the development of aquatic
plants during low-water cycles, lack of water also can encourage
landowners seeking to “clean up” their shoreline, according to Tim
Ohmann, DNR aquatic plant management specialist.

With water down 6 to 7 feet on some east metro lakes, Ohmann
said the department has seen more cases this year of lakeshore
property owners illegally cutting or removing shoreline vegetation,
or in some cases, tilling the former lakebed.

“Next year, if the water levels remain low, we’ll focus in on a
couple lakes, and do more enforcement out there,” he said.

DNR Conservation Officer Todd Langevin, of Center City, said
while cutting lakeshore vegetation without a permit is “always an
issue,” this year such activity has been more prevalent, he

Conservation officers typically issue cease and desist orders
for questionable activity. They’re also responsible for follow-up
should the landowner be issued a restoration order, Langevin

“If they’re not complying with the restoration order, we write
the citation (for the misdemeanor offense),” he said.

Still, determining at a glance if illegal vegetation removal has
occurred can be tricky. “You look at a lake and know that once the
entire lake had bulrushes (around it) at one time,” he said.

Like the well-documented drawdowns of Upper Mississippi River
pools (between locks and dams), the low water on state lakes allows
plant seeds to germinate on exposed lakebed – if they’re not tilled

“With the low water, it’s a good opportunity for the bulrush to
recolonize areas that have been wiped out over time,” Ohmann

Lake vegetation has been protected further by new rules that
recently took effect, he said; now, vegetation may only be removed
along just half of a shore owner’s property, up to 100 feet.
Langevin said a “loophole” also has been removed regarding the
removal of plants “in water,” that protects such plants during
low-water periods.

New rules ahead

Perhaps the greatest changes will come in the near future,
however, as the DNR moves toward new shoreland rules.

Currently, a process commissioned by the state Legislature is in
the draft stage. “Minnesota’s Shoreland Rules: Standards for Lake
and River Conservation” must be approved by the DNR commissioner
and Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Then the plan would be the topic of public
hearings before taking effect.

“It could be in play by next spring or summer,” said Paul
Radomski, a DNR research scientist in Brainerd who prepared the
draft plan.

Among other things, Radomski said the plan provides greater
protection for “sensitive” shoreline areas, including greater
setback requirements and lower-density development; higher
protection standards along trout streams; and allowing local units
of government to provide greater levels of protection to vulnerable
shoreline areas.

Radomski said the proposal also calls for greater protection of
the state’s shallow lakes’ shorelines.

The plan also addresses wastewater and septic systems. A buffer
requirement is recommended for any new lakeshore development.
Buffers are recommended along the lakeshore by existing homes, but
not required.

The proposal calls for the DNR teaming with local government
units to educate landowners on the benefits of buffers, and provide
incentives to create them.

Even if the new standards come to be, Radomski said it will take
a while to undo past action and attitudes that created the current
state of affairs around state lakes and on rivers and streams.

“I think it will take a long time to change people’s behavior
when it comes to critical, near-shore areas,” he said.

The DNR hasn’t set about creating the proposal on its own.
According to the draft plan’s executive summary, five advisory
committees were convened to provide advice to the DNR. Twelve open
houses were held to gain public comment on development of standards
for lake and river protection, and the DNR talked with more than
500 citizens.

The process began in January 2008. The DNR was charged by the
Legislature with updating the statewide minimum shoreland
conservation standards; local governments are responsible for the
“implementation, administration, and enforcement of shoreland
zoning ordinances that meet or exceed the state’s standards.”

The draft’s executive summary suggests the revisions are
necessary “to address important economic and environmental

“The state is growing fast, and the rate of development in
shorelands is predicted to increase. Many people are concerned
about the consequences of poor development on water quality and
fish and wildlife habitat,” the draft summary says. “Better
development practices can protect water quality, while increasing
property values. In addition, the existing shoreland standards
needed to be modernized to provide flexibility in use of various
tools to address water quality declines and habitat losses and to
reflect the diversity in local resource conditions and needs.”

The DNR first adopted shoreland rules for counties in 1970.
Those standards were amended in 1973 to also apply to Minnesota
cities; the standards were further revised in 1989, the last time
significant changes were made to shoreland rules.

A study in 2004 found there were about 181,000 lake homes on
“fish” lakes in the state. About half were seasonal residences; 75
percent were located on less than 200 feet of shoreline frontage.
The DNR estimated there was a total of about 225,000 lakeshore
residences in 2004 for all lakes in the state.

Visit the DNR Waters web page for more information on the draft
proposal (

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