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Carrying Out Programs to Protect Lake Health

By Eric Olson, Director and Lake Specialist, Extension Lakes

Capacity Corner, from, Lake Tides Volume 46 Number 4 and The Wisconsin Lakes Partnership.

We close out each year of the Capacity Corner by looking at programmatic capacity. This represents the ability of a lake organization to get things done. Programmatic capacity often depends on how well a group performs in the other three dimensions of capacity (membership, organizational, relational). Since we started our regular focus on capacity, we've heard from lake stakeholders across the state who are hoping to share their own programmatic successes and challenges. We'd like to use this edition of Capacity Corner to discuss what protection efforts look like across Wisconsin and share one such story to help inspire you in your capacity building efforts.

It's helpful to think of a lake group's programs focusing on two realms of activity: protection and restoration. Protection encompasses proactive steps that fend off future harm. Restoration focuses on fixing problems, often after Carrying Out Programs to Protect Lake Health they have become obvious. As with human health, it is often true that preventing poor lake conditions is less costly and complicated than bringing a lake back from an impaired state. Unfortunately, lakes and humans both can be subject to benign neglect, especially if the consequences of letting our guard down take years or decades to manifest.

Protecting lake health from external threats represents a long-term, continuous programmatic need for lake groups and their partners. While protecting human health is fairly well understood (eat a nutritious diet, exercise, don’t overindulge), protecting lake health can be harder to conceptualize. If a lake is healthy today, it likely has been so for thousands of years, so why worry?

Threats:  For starters, science has helped us better understand the causes of poor lake health, and it turns out that no lake is immune from the harmful forces that can degrade a lake’s water quality and ecology. Major threats to lakes include: nutrient and sediment loading from the watershed, loss of habitat in and around the lake, and harmful invasive species. Climate change is a fourth threat, impacting lakes directly by modifying their temperature regimes and indirectly by amplifying the potential harm of the other three threats.

The recipe to protect a lake from invasive species is simple: keep them out of the lake!

Anyone who has been involved in the decadeslong battle against aquatic invasive species (AIS) knows that it’s not that easy in practice. Boat landings are understood as the primary gateway for AIS, but bait buckets and anything else being moved from lake to lake can also transport AIS. Participating in the Clean Boats, Clean Waters (CBCW) education campaign is one major programmatic approach to preventing AIS. So too is monitoring the lake to find plants and critters that don’t belong before they become firmly established. Does your lake group participate in CBCW? Are there volunteers doing AIS detection work through the Citizen Lake Monitoring Network (CLMN) or the annual AIS Snapshot Day?

Hundreds of lakes and thousands of volunteers and staff collaborate in the CBCW program. Nearly 1000 lakes carry out volunteer citizen monitoring. Learn how your lake can participate on the Extension Lakes website:

Habitat loss near the lake is another threat to lake health. We have learned that the ecology within a lake is tied to the ecology around the lake; a healthy shoreland area fosters insects and wildlife that support a diverse and robust fishery. The gradual addition of dead trees into the lake plays a key role in supporting aquatic insects, young fish, and slowing shoreline erosion. Buffers of native plants along the shore slow runoff and protect the lake from excess nutrients. Lake organizations can foster norms that keep native plants on the landscape and in the lake. Does your lake group participate in the Healthy Lakes and Rivers program? Are there opportunities to install demonstration projects showcasing native plants at boat landings, parks, and other public spaces? Does your group recognize and reward shoreland owners who actively protect and restore native shores?

The Healthy Lakes and Rivers website provides easy to use resources to help landowners and lake groups do the right thing for our Wisconsin lakes and rivers.

Watersheds: Watershed threats are often much more vexing for a lake group to tackle. The water coming into your lake comes from either direct precipitation, groundwater, or streams and surface water runoff. In less than 200 years, humans have radically altered the Wisconsin landscape in ways that feed more runoff to waterbodies, and the speed it arrives allows runoff to carry soil particles and other materials that degrade water quality. In forested regions of Wisconsin, the changes are relatively small and subtle, but the potential for future forest loss looms. Changes in climate and irrigation technologies are making agriculture economically viable in places where immigrant farmers abandoned their efforts in the 1930s and ’40s. Securing forested land and limiting future land use change seems daunting.

 Programmatic Capacity At Work: An example from Sawyer County sheds light on how a lake association can draw on its capacity to protect a healthy watershed. Grindstone Lake, at over 3,000 acres, is just outside of Hayward and fortunate to have a heavily forested watershed and great water quality: summertime Secchi readings indicate about 20 feet of clarity! An opportunity to proactively protect the lake arose when the owner of a 57-acre cranberry bog near the lake elected to discontinue growing crops and sell the land. What would the future of the bog be: development and roads feeding more runoff to the lake, or restored wetlands and recreational trails?

The Grindstone Lake Association set out to raise the money needed to ensure an outcome that would help protect the lake. Drawing on all of their membership, organizational, and relational capacity, they supported the creation of an independent foundation in 2018 to focus solely on the cranberry bog project. The foundation set a goal of raising over $750,000 in just a few short years to secure the site. They have already raised almost half a million dollars, providing the momentum needed to accomplish this lofty project. They also connected with UW Madison to engage a graduate student to help envision the ecological and recreational potential of the land, helping supporters understand how a proactive strategy would benefit the community. Protecting lake and watershed health is a major challenge. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has been working with partners over the last year to begin a major initiative to align their own programmatic capacity towards stronger protection. The Healthy Watersheds and High-Quality Waters initiative will be sharing their action plan this spring at the Wisconsin Lakes and Rivers Convention in Stevens Point (see page 12 for more information). Come to learn about the effort and share your own experiences keeping our waters healthy!


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