/ Opinions / Healthy Lakes and Rivers Program helps land owners with smaller projects

Healthy Lakes and Rivers Program helps land owners with smaller projects

September 11, 2020 by Beckie Gaskill


Last week I attended the Healthy Lakes and Rivers Webinar put on by the Vilas County Land and Water Department. I think the Healthy Lakes and Rivers Program is such a great program, and it is starting to become more popular with riparian owners, which is great to see.  

Vilas County lake conservation specialist Cathy Higley showed some projects property owners have undertaken, which I think is always nice to see. While some people may be thinking about completing shoreline projects, it is nice for them to look first to see what others have done and the results they have gotten. The program used to be called Healthy Lakes, but now has expanded to include river and streamfront riparian owners. The program now helps with reimbursement grant for small projects for all riparians.

There are several projects that qualify for the Healthy Lakes and Rivers Program. These projects have to do with shoreline health, stopping runoff and creating habitat. There are five best practices that make up the program. These best practices include fish stick, shoreline native plantings, rock infiltrations, diversions and rain gardens. So, the projects basically cover in-water, near-water and away-from-water projects property owners may be looking to undertake. 


Fish sticks

Fish sticks create fish and wildlife habitat. They also help prevent erosion by slowing down waves before they hit the shoreline. Fish sticks are only available for lake-property owners, and are woody habitat structures anchored to the shoreline. The result of a fish sticks project is approximately one tree per 50 feet of shoreline. The trees are in clusters of three to five with an average installed cost of $890. The available reimbursement funding for a project is $1,000 per fish sticks cluster. A permit may be needed from the local zoning department, but assistance in determining this can be found at the local land and water conservation department. 


Native shoreland planting

Native shoreline plantings are another project becoming more common as more riparian owners start to see the value in these plantings, and the harm that can be done to a waterway with a perfectly manicured lawn extending all the way down to the water’s edge. Some property owners have chosen low-growing natives, while others have had more of an eye for what might attract birds or butterflies. 

The nice thing about native plantings is that it really be tailored to what the property owner wants. Of course, native plantings are not just for shorelines, but they do serve quite a large purpose in those areas. They can be used to limit runoff, create habitat or bring about an aesthetic appeal a land owner may be looking for. While native plants in the past may have been seen as “messy,” or “unsightly,” I can honestly say I have seen a number of completed projects that really do add to the landscape, rather than take away from it. Besides just the beauty of the plants themselves, being able to view the pollinators, birds and other animals that make use of the shoreline where these native plants live is well worth the effort of planting them. 


Rock infiltrations and diversions

Diversions and rock infiltrations both limit runoff, which can have harmful effects on surface water of our lakes and rivers. Impervious surfaces, such as roofs and driveways go hand in hand with human habitation. Unfortunately, they do increase run off. This funnels contaminants down into the waterway. 

Fortunately, there are two best practices covered be the Healthy Lakes and Rivers Program. A diversion project moves water from a run off area, such as a gutter downspout, to a place where it can soak into the ground. This way, the water will be filtered, taking out contaminants before heading down to the lake or river. Some property owners have found multiple diversions were needed for their properties. While rock diversions may not be as “pretty” as a shoreline planting, for instance, they can still be worked into the landscape in ways that make them attractive features.

Rock infiltrations, much like diversions, keep water from running directly into the lake or river. Where diversions point the runoff into a direction where it can soak into the soil, a rock infiltration allows water from downspouts or roof drip lines, for instance, to sink into the soil where it falls, and get filtered before it runs off into the lake. 

Nature is a great filter. If we allow it to do so, it can usually handle a lot of the things we throw at it. But it does need some help from us. That is what these best practices do. They give the soil a chance to filter out contaminants, allowing for cleaner water to then find its way into the watershed. 


Rain gardens

Rain gardens are the other best practice covered by the Healthy Lakes and Rivers program and probably my favorite one, to be honest. They are created with native plants that do not mind “wet feet” at times, but can also thrive in drier conditions. They are usually not directly on a shoreline, but somewhere upland where there is also a runoff concern, usually within 1,000 feet of a lake or 300 feet of a river. These gardens are not only functional, but can be very beautiful as well. Again, the county land and water conservation department can help a land owner know what plants will work well in a rain garden based on the location and aesthetics that are wanted at the site. Rain gardens also catch run off water, which is of course used by the plants, but also given the chance, again, to soak into the soil before heading off to the lake or river. 

I understand how some people could worry about standing water and mosquitoes, but with a rain garden, this is a mistaken thought. Mosquitoes take approximately seven days to hatch. Water in rain gardens, for the most part, is gone within hours. During rain events especially heavy or long lasting, water may stay in the garden for a day or more, but if the garden is built correctly, standing water of a duration a mosquito needs to hatch will never be a problem. 

There have been many land owners who have undertaken these smaller projects completely on their own. However, it is important to remember, too, there are reimbursement grants available from the program to reimburse land owners for the costs associated with installing one of these best practices on the landscape. Small-Scale Lake Planning Grants of up to $3,000 are available to help build one of these projects. 

Applications for projects are not due until Nov. 1, but now is a great time to start working with a Department of Natural Resources environmental grant specialist or your local lake biologist to determine what best practices will work best for your landscape. It is also a great time to get lake association members together, even if that is virtually or via telephone, to see who else might be interested in installing some kind of best practice on their property in the coming year. Information about the grants can also be found on the DNR website dnr.wi.gov by searching for Surface Water Grants. All of the information a land owner would need to complete one of these best practices, from start to finish, can be found on the Healthy Lakes and Rivers website healthy lakeswi.com. I would encourage riparian owners to check it out, even just for their own information. County land and water conservation departments will also be more than happy to help.

Beckie Gaskill may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]



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