Photo of Lake Leelanau shoreline with landscaping designed to protect water quality

 Landscaping for Water Quality by Nancy Popa

Leelanau County is fortunate to have an abundance of high-quality lakes and streams that everyone can benefit from for swimming, boating, fishing, drinking water, or simply enjoying. However, the health of these bodies of water is dependent on how well we, Leelanau County residents, care for them. The Lake Leelanau Lake Association (LLLA) would like to share information on landscaping for water quality and ways you can help protect our beautiful Leelanau County waters.

Rainfall & Drainage

When rainwater falls on a natural site, the vegetation and soils absorb and collect it. When rainwater falls on a manmade surface like a parking lot or rooftop, it can quickly run off into storm drains and drainage ditches. Such surfaces are called impervious surfaces.

While proper drainage is needed to protect your home from water damage, the water impervious surfaces slough off contain fertilizer, sediment, pesticides, and other pollutants, rapidly carrying them into waterways as it runs off of your property. Eventually, these waterways connect to lakes, streams, wetlands, rivers, and other bodies of water, making them vulnerable to these pollutants.

As water flows over your property, carefully designed landscape features can decrease the speed of water flow and reduce its ability to erode soils and sediment and deposit pollutants.

Buffers & Vegetative Strips

One important landscape feature for riparian owners is native shoreline buffers or vegetative strips. A shoreline buffer should be a planted area along the shoreline and go out at least 15 feet from the water’s edge, but the ideal distance is at least 35 feet. These areas spread out runoff water and slow the speed of the water flow, thereby minimizing the potential for erosion and subsequent sediment and pollutants from entering the water.

Native plants are preferred for a variety of reasons. Native plants thrive here because they have adapted to the soil and climate. They also provide habitat and food to various insects and animals that require specific native plants to live. Lastly, native plants have much larger and stronger root systems than turf grass making them a better option since they hold the soil in place and prevent erosion.

Rain Gardens

A rain garden is another landscape feature that can prevent runoff and erosion. Rain gardens collect water from gutters or driveways in an area designed to collect runoff water. They are impressions lined with a coarse or porous soil mixture of sand or gravel beneath a bed of native plants. Runoff water collects in the rain garden, soaks quickly into the soil, or is absorbed by the plants. Pollutants—like sediment, fertilizer, and oil/grease—are filtered out by the soil. When the groundwater does reach the lake, it is cleaner if processed by a rain garden.

An infographic showing how rain gardens work
"How Rain Gardens Work" infographic provided by the Greater Lansing Regional Committee of Stormwater Management

Landscaping Maintenance Tips

Recent studies by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have identified the development of shoreline property as the most critical threat to shoreline wildlife and water quality. The maintenance of natural, living shorelines combats this threat. 

Using native plants in buffers and gardens can provide habitat for wildlife. Trees and shrubs provide food and shelter and nesting habitat for songbirds. Nectar from native plants can provide nutrition to hummingbirds and butterflies. Wet gardens with native plants can provide breeding and nursery habitats for wetland wildlife like frogs and dragonflies, which eat mosquitos. Lastly, trees and shrubs along the shoreline provide spawning and nursery habitat for fish, and native shoreline plants prevent erosion.

Many of us are unfamiliar with native plants because so many have disappeared from our environment. It can seem daunting to decide which plants to use, but we have developed a short list of easy-to-grow native plants that are easy to find locally. 

Click here to see the list and other great resources for natural shorelines. For a more extensive list, visit the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership’s Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership webpage.

Remember, any modification to the lake bottom or anything that reconfigures the structure of the lake usually requires a permit from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). For more information about permits, click here.

If you would like a consultation for your shoreline or landscaping for water quality, call Nancy Popa, the LLLA’s Shoreline Ambassador, at 231-944-9509.

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