Around many older, much-loved camps the vegetation has been worn away by generations of lake lovers. Often on well-wooded lots, grass and traditional groundcovers do not grow well. This leaves a serious threat to our lakes — bare soil. Raindrops hitting the dirt loosen molecules containing phosphorous, which are then carried over the bare ground and into the lakes to feed the algae. Planting buffers will help, but the first goal should be to cover bare soil.
What can be done? If grass won’t grow because of shade or soil conditions, plant non-traditional shade loving groundcovers — such as bunchberry, lily-of-the-valley, or periwinkles. Under hemlocks (where few other plants will grow), you can let the little hemlocks grow and prune them to keep them low and bushy. If you can’t get anything to grow, let the pine needles and leaves build up into a nice spongy duff layer. This is nature’s filter to protect lake water quality. An alternative, instant duff layer is bark mulch, especially the “soil stabilizer” mixes available from local nurseries. Added in a four to six inch layer, bark mulch as the added advantage of helping to filter runoff.
Paths should be well-defined and stabilized, as should parking areas. Buffer strips can be planted downhill from the parking area to filter runoff. Paths can be covered with stone or mulch. Paths should also meander down toward the shore — such turns give water an opportunity to run off the path and into the buffer.
As summer is upon us, and we begin to clean up the grounds around the camp remember that leaves, grass clippings and yard waste do not belong in the lake (or a stream feeding into the lake). It is tempting to dump yard waste over the bank and hope that nature will wash it away; but in our crowded world there is no away. As the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says in their booklet Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality: “Bag it now or swim in it later. Organic material from yards and elsewhere in residential areas ends up downstream where it pollutes lakes and streams. Worst offenders: leaves and grass clippings that move from yard…to water.”
Mats of floating grass clippings or leaves are unpleasant to swim in. They also add to the nutrient enrichment of our lakes — adding phosphorus to fuel algal growth and contributing (through decomposition) to low oxygen levels in the lakes that can stress fish populations. Leaves and grass clippings should not be dumped into streams (it is illegal); it will also smother the critters living in the stream beds, and contribute excessive nutrients to the lake.
What to do? Best do nothing. Leave the grass clippings on your lawn as a natural fertilizer. If you live in the woods, don’t rake up the leaves; leave them on the ground to form that natural duff layer that absorbs runoff and filters nutrients. Never rake your yard down to bare soil!
What is this thing called Shoreland Zoning? And why should I consider it important? This is Maine! Why can’t I do with my property what I want? These are all familiar comments about the law that does so much to protect our lakes, streams, and wetlands.
Over the next couple of weeks I be discussing these issues and more.
What is Shoreland Zoning? It is an attempt to protect the fragile natural resources that are our lakes. The initial law was passed in 1971, and has been strengthened several times since. The basic provision is that each town should protect the “Shoreland Zone” — 250′ from the high-water line of lakes, rivers, wetlands (over ten acres) and estuaries — either with a local ordinance or the mandatory statewide ordinance. Human activities within this zone are restricted to protect our water-bodies.
Some of the goals of Shoreland Zoning include the protection of water quality, conservation of open space and natural habitat, protection of fish spawning areas and bird nesting areas, protection of the forested shoreline (for a healthy lake). Other goals involve the protection of historic and archeological resources.
Why is this important? The Shoreland Zone is the last defense for the lakes. The whole watershed can contribute to a decline in water quality (hence the watershed surveys that BRCA has been conducting), but the Shoreland Zone can function as a huge vegetated buffer to filter out phosphorus and other nutrients, if the natural vegetation is relatively undisturbed.
Shoreland Zoning Continued
Last week I tried to give some reasons for the Shoreland Zoning Act, and this week I will look at some others. Much of what I am discussing is contained in DEP publications such as Maine Shoreland Zoning: A Handbook for Shoreland Owners (available from DEP or at the BRCA office in Belgrade Lakes).
Human activity has an effect on natural resources, and the more folks want to use or enjoy a resource, the more that resource needs protection. Maine’s lakes have attracted tourists and other visitors since the early nineteenth century — Henry David Thoreau among them. But the sheer number of visitors and residents is growing. What began as “Granpa’s camp” and was used on the occasional weekend during the summer, is now busy all summer with the grandchildren’s families. There is nothing wrong with this, but we must acknowledge that the increased use requires increasing protection or we will lose the very thing we love.
The impact of any one camp is probably minimal, and if that were the only camp on the lake, we wouldn’t need Shoreland Zoning or other water quality protection tools. But there are over 800 camps on Great Pond alone.
The impact of shoreland development is a form of pollution — specifically called Non-point Source (NPS) Pollution. This pollution results from human activity — so we humans must try and minimize its impact. Is Shoreland Zoning the perfect answer? No. Individual education and accountability is the long term solution; but, until that day, we have to use the tools we have.
Cutting Trees in the Shoreland Zone
Nothing seems to cause more confusion and frustration than the restrictions on tree cutting within the Shoreland Zone. I’m not sure that I can clarify the situation, but I will try. I will be discussing new construction, but the rules also apply to existing camps that have a well-vegetated buffer strip.
The basic rule is that within the Shoreland Zone (250′ back from the shore) no more than 40% of the trees (by volume) over 4″ in diameter (at breast height — a standard forestry measurement = dbh) may be removed over a ten year period, provided you leave a “well-distributed stand of trees” Huh?
Wait! There is more — within 100′ of the shore there no openings in the canopy greater than 250 square feet (10′ x 25′) and no path wider than 6′. Once you get 100′ back from the shore, you can clear an area for you camp that is up to 25% of the area of the lot within the Shoreland Zone or 10,000 square feet (whichever is greater). So the rule of thumb is do not cut trees.
The purpose of these rules is to maintain a forested shoreline which helps protect the lake from human activity. The DEP leaflet “Clearing of Vegetation in the Shoreland Zone” contains diagrams and formulas for calculating the maximum allowed cut. But remember, the closer you get to the maximum, the less protection your buffer provides to the lake. Any dead trees may be removed, but these are important habitat for wildlife and birds.
Cutting Trees in the Shoreland Zone Continued
The last article laid out the basic rules for tree removal within the Shoreland Zone. This week looks at some other parts of the ordinance.
The first issue to note is that new clearings are not allowed within 100 feet of the shore. If storm damage causes a new clearing it must be replanted if replacement saplings are not present. Clearing for pathways (less than 6′ from tree trunk to tree trunk) is allowed, as long as there is no clear view of the water created — in other words the path must meander.
What about the view to the water? Trees (greater than 2″ in diameter) may be pruned up to 1/3 of their total height. This will preserve a solid canopy to protect the ground from erosion. Vegetation (trees and bushes) under 3 feet tall must not be cut at all. This protects the duff layer from blowing away and also break-ups the falling rain. The best buffer is a three tiered buffer: tree canopy, shrub layer and groundcovers.
These rules apply to newly developed properties as well as existing development that has been allowed to grow up. If you have an existing cleared opening you may maintain it (but please plant a buffer strip on the shore) — if you neglect to maintain a clearing, you may not recreate it.
Remember that the goal of Shoreland Zoning is to protect the health of the lake, and human activity is the greatest threat. If you have specific questions about your property, you should consult with your town’s Code Enforcement Officer.
Buffers as Wildlife Habitat
The last two articles have talked about the rules for maintaining forested buffers along your lake shore — this week I’d like to talk about some of the pleasures of buffer strips.
One of the principle reasons people love to come to Maine is the opportunity to see wildlife that may have disappeared from the areas where they live. This wildlife is abundant because Maine is once again forested. You can experience this forest wildlife right in the buffer area between your camp and the lake.
A forested shoreline provides a travel corridor for mink and otters. Watching a mink hunt along the shore, among tree roots and rocks is a great way to spend a few minutes.
The trees in your forested buffer can provide nesting cavities for woodpeckers, owls, chickadees, wood ducks and mergansers. There are a whole host of common birds that will use your buffer for nesting, feeding or just as a travel corridor.
There are many books on how to create “backyard habitat” for birds — these ideas can be applied to your buffer (just don’t plant potentially invasive non-native plants!). Blueberries, cranberries, the native hollies, shadbush — all provide food in the fall for birds both migratory and over-wintering.
Buffers may also be wildlife discouragers. If you have a lawn down to the lake and are plagued by Canada geese — try growing a buffer 8′ to 10′ wide. This could be as simple as letting the grasses and weeds get 3′ high. Geese and ducks are reluctant to come up onto a shore where a predator may be lurking.
One more piece about buffer strips! The ideal shoreline buffer strip consists of the three-tiered wooded area on shore (groundcover, shrubs and trees); the trees that have fallen into the water; and the aquatic plants near shore. And you thought vegetated buffer strips were simple!
The aquatic plants, both submergent and emergent, help to break up the force of the waves. Such shoreline plants as bulrushes and cattails help to protect the shore and the roots keep the bottom sediments stable. They also provide habitat for fish, frogs and waterfowl.
The other component of the buffer is the dead trees in the water — referred in the trade as “large woody debris (lwd).” Large tree trunks perpendicular to the shoreline work like a groin to break up the force of the waves (this is why Mother Nature does not need the Belgrade Lakes Conservation Corps to riprap natural shorelines). Eroding shorelines are often the result of development too close the shore and the removal of these natural wave disruptors. If you own 100′ of shoreline how much of it really needs to be free of fallen trees? You need safe access to the dock for boats, and a swimming area. Couldn’t you just let the rest go au natural?
There is another benefit from Large Woody Debris — fish! Scientific studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of downed trees along the shore and the size and amount of fish in the lake. Fisheries biologists call this “stucture.” Turtles also love to sun these emergent logs!
Buffers Part 3
When lake people talk about “buffers” they are usually referring to a “vegetated buffer strip between human activity and the lake (pond, stream, river, etc).” This area of plants and mulch needs to be wide enough to absorb all the runoff coming from the property. A series of strips (aka “garden beds”) between the house and the lake is good. A single wide buffer near the lake is acceptable. An imitation of the natural forest between the camp and the pond is ideal.
Why? The best vegetated buffer has four elements 1) the duff layer that builds up on the ground and acts like a sponge (this can be imitated by a deep layer of bark mulch). 2) Groundcovers — plants that hug the soil and shield it from the impact of rain drops (rain drops can dislodge a great deal of sediment even before it becomes noticeable). 3) A shrub layer helps protect the soil and the ground covers, it also discourages people from walking through the buffer except on designated and maintained paths. 4) The tree canopy overtops all, protecting the plants below. Rain falling on the canopy should have three layers of leaves to get through before it reaches the duff layer.
Who needs a buffer on their property? Everyone who lives in a watershed! While we emphasize the importance of shoreline buffers — those are the last line of defense. Every house that is in a watershed should have a vegetated buffer on the downhill side. Erosion and phosphorus transportation can begin at the top of the watershed — and all streams lead down to the lake (or river).
I have been talking about planting vegetated buffer strips, but what should you plant?
Native species are always a safe bet. Blueberries (always a hit!), arrow-wood, Joe-Pye-weed, juniper, winterberry (a native holly) — these are some of the most common native bushes and perennials that are used. Day lilies make a good start on a buffer strip — they are tough and decorative, although not native, they are part of the New England landscape!
Your buffer strip can provide added pleasure if you think about it as a wildlife attractor. Flowers can be planted to bring in butterflies and hummingbirds. Some good choices of native species are Joe-Pye Weed, Bee Balm, Swamp Milkweed (not the common roadside milkweed), and the asters. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension has put out a fine pamphlet called “Gardening to Conserve Maine’s Native Landscape” (available at the BRCA office). This list has both common and scientific (“Latin”) names, light and moisture requirements, and height at maturity. As well as a few comments on flower colours, berries (poisonous or not), etc.
There are some plants that you should avoid using because they are (or under the right conditions can be) terrestrial invasives. The New England Wildflower Society has a list of over 90 terrestrial invasive plant that they are concerned about here in the northeast.
Some common nursery bushes that should be avoided are Russian Olive, Autumn Olive, the Buckthorns (Black and Glossy), Barberries, any of the Honeysuckles, and Rosa Rugosa. All of these are aggressive invaders of our woodlands and fields. Among trees to be avoided are Norway Maples and Black Locust.
Living near the shore of a lake or stream is a privilege that requires we take extra precautions to protect the water we love. One way to do this is keep a vegetated buffer strip between you and the shore. This can take many forms. The Shoreland Zoning “no cut” area, ensures that a wooded buffer containing three layers (ground cover, shrubs and canopy) remains when new construction takes place. This is an attempt to maintain the natural forest processes that filter pollutants before they reach the water.
What can you do if you own an existing camp with a lawn and no buffer? Plant one! This can be as simple as stopping mowing the last 20 feet before the shore and letting Nature provide the plants. Or you can go to the opposite extreme and hire a landscape designer to create a stunning garden buffer.
Either way, there are a couple of basics to be incorporated. 1) The width of the buffer depends on the steepness of your land — with a minimum of at least 10 feet in width. 2) Aim for a layered buffer — groundcovers, shrubs and trees; this breaks up rainfall and uses up the nutrients in over the ground flow. 3) Use a deep mulch on the soil to slow and absorb runoff — at least until your buffer begins to build its own duff layer.
Flowers and flowering shrubs add beauty to your property. Berry producing shrubs can attract birds and other wildlife to your camp. Native plants are generally more desirable than non-natives — but be sure to avoid such invasives as barberry or autumn olive. For a pamphlet on Native Plants call the BRCA office 495-6039.
Soap is a pollutant — especially when lakes are involved. When Granpa was a boy, and there were far fewer camps around the lakes, bathing in the lake was an acceptable practice. It probably was not a good practice even then, but once again it is population pressures impacting our lakes. There are so many people wanting to live and play near the lakes that we have to work hard to protect the resource. Another problem that our watershed surveys have uncovered is outdoor showers — where soapy water can run off into a stream or down to the lake — these should be plumbed to a dry-well at least.
This is also true for washing the family pet!
Washing boats and cars is another problem. Cars and boats should be taken to a car-wash where the waste water is either recycled or sent to a sewage treatment plant. Washing them in your yard allows the waste-water to run off into the lake. If you must wash your vehicles at your house, pick and area of absorbent soil with a good duff layer that will soak up the pollutants.
Soapy runoff is great food for algae — both silt and dirt and the chemicals in the soap are junk food for algal growth.
When choosing your household cleaners look for phosphate free soaps and detergents. There are a whole host of bio-degradable cleansers on the market. For the sake of our lakes look for the least polluting to use at your home or camp.
Washing Day Continued
Last week I talked about how cumulative small individual actions can lead to big problems for all. A good example of that would be bathing in the lake. I can remember spending summers on the lake in Eddington — the camp had a flush toilet (in the garage) and running water at the kitchen sink. Baths were a bar of soap and off the dock. That was 45 years ago. Most of us know better now; but — believe it or not some people are still treating the lakes as a bathtub!
Soap is a pollutant — especially when lakes are involved. When there were far fewer camps around the lakes, bathing in the lake was acceptable. It probably was not a good practice even then, but once again it is population pressures impacting our lakes. There are so many people wanting to live and play near the lakes that we have to work hard to protect the resource. A similar problem that our watershed surveys have uncovered is outdoor showers — where soapy water can run off into a stream or down to the lake — these should be plumbed to a dry-well at least.
This is also true for washing the family pet! And the car! And the boat!Washing them in your yard allows the waste-water to run off into the lake. If you must wash your vehicles at your house, pick and area of absorbent soil with a good duff layer that will soak up the pollutants.
Under Your Deck
Have you looked under your deck lately? That area where nothing will grow, and where you store the lawn mower and the deck chairs. Rainwater dripping between the boards makes neat parallel grooves in the bare dirt. If there has been a recent heavy rain you might see the erosion runnels heading toward the lake. You probably have a great selection of spiders too!
I can’t help with the spiders, but I can make suggestions to cut down on the Non-point Source Pollution coming from the bare soil. Since grass won’t grow under there, we need to look at other options for covering the bare soil. The first choice would be crushed stone. A layer of stone 2-4″ deep would protect the soil from erosion and give you a useable surface for storing the odds and ends that accumulate under a deck. This is better than paving it with bricks or concrete because the stone is porous and allows rainwater to soak through and into the ground, rather than running off and causing a different management problem.
Another option is to use bark mulch — the best being “Soil Stabilizer” or “Conservation Mix” — they will function like the stone and protect the soil. The two types of mulch I mentioned above are quite dense and heavy, so they stay in place once applied. Lighter mulches, particularly those made of wood chips tend to get scattered and pushed around leaving bare patches. Avoid the painted (or stained) “designer” mulches — we have no idea what those additives might do as they leach into our lakes.
Septic systems — every one has one, most people don’t want to talk about them. Where does your household wastewater go? Do you know what kind of system you have in the ground beside or behind your camp? This can be a health problem as well as a threat to our lakes. The Maine Department of the Environment estimates that 12% of the septic systems in the state are inadequate or failing. This is not a huge part of the phosphorus loading to our lakes (5-10%), but it just adds to the burden.
So what’s the problem if they leak a little? If wastes are not properly processed through the tank and leach field, they can release pathogens (human diseases) into the water. That’s the principle issue. On a lake management level, they can add phosphorous to the lake (and algae love phosphorus!). The aquatic plants growing in front of your camp also love phosphorus and the other nutrients that leach from an inadequate wastewater disposal system.
If you know that you do not have a septic system (ie have a cesspool or just a barrel full of rocks) — you should be planning on putting in a system both for your health’s sake and for the lake. If your septic system is 20 years old or older — you should have it checked to be sure it is functioning properly. Septic systems do wear out and the average life-span is 15-25 years.
Septic Systems Continued
Last week I spoke about septic systems in general — this week I’ll look a some of the things that help or harm a septic system. Most of this information comes from the DEP pamphlet — “Septic Systems — How They Work” (available at the BRCA office in Belgrade Lakes).
Septic systems fail in two ways — 1) hydraulic failure — which is when you see wastewater bubbling up out of the ground, or it backs up into the house. This is the obvious failure. 2) Phosphorus treatment failure is when the soils do not adequately absorb phosphorus, and it leaches out into groundwater or the lake.
What should you do to protect your system? Have it inspected and pumped regularly, every 3-4 years for a seasonal residence . Install water saving devices on showers and faucets. Keep trees and bushes from growing on the leach field — the roots can disrupt it. Plant trees and shrubs downhill from your system to help absorb water and nutrients.
Do not put grease or garbage down the drain — “garbage disposals” are bad for septic systems. Don’t put any kind of oil (automotive or cooking) down the drain. Don’t use phosphorus containing detergents. Don’t put paints or other harsh chemicals down the drain (a septic system works by bacteriological action and you don’t want to harm the bacteria). Don’t add septic system cleaners (either chemical or biological) to your system — they can clog up the leach field.
Do you fertilize your lawn? Does your lawn need fertilizer? Most American lawns and yards are over fertilized. Far more fertilizer is dumped on lawns than on farm fields (and golf courses are even worse!). The problem is that most of this fertilizer is not absorbed and runs off into lakes, streams, and rivers.
Before adding any fertilizer you should do a soil test to find out what is needed. Why spend money on products that aren’t used by the grasses. The Maine Cooperative Extension can assist you with soil testing (581-3591).
Do you know what you are buying? The three numbers on bags of fertilizer refer to the amounts of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium in the mix as percentages (i.e. 5-10-10 contains 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus, and 10% potassium). You should ask for a phosphate free fertilizers (5-0-10 or some such). The grasses in your lawn cannot use the phosphorus from the fertilizer, so it just runs off into the lake — where algae love it. It will also help feed the pickeral weed or other aquatic macrophytes growing in front of your dock. “One pound of phosphorus can produce up to 500 pounds of aquatic plant or algae growth once it washes into a lake!” (Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality, p. 27).
There are phosphate free fertilizers available from local nurseries and garden supply places. Phos-free is one brand name. A lake friendly lawn is a misnomer, but you can use products that are less harmful to the lake you love.
More on Lawns
“The only good lawn is one that is overgrown.” That should be the motto of all camp owners around the lakes. A manicured lawn does not promote nutrient absorption, one of my lake management colleagues includes lawns as impervious surface along with driveways and roads! Watch what happens the next time we have a thundershower. Does the rain soak into your lawn, or does it run over and off?
If you must mow your patch, keep it as small as possible. And leave the grass clippings on the ground to rot —they contribute one half to one pound of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of lawn.
Better is to plant a vegetative buffer strip between your lawn and the lake. Better still is to do away with any lawn near the lake — let it all grow up! Do you come up here to get away — and mow? A well mulched bed of bushes and flowers (five to eight feet wide on flat areas — getting wider with steeper slopes) will beautify your property, provide privacy from boaters on the lake, and help protect the lake — What a bargain!
“[M]any significant ecological and property management problems encountered in a lakeshore setting stem from landscape management practices. [People] have brought these practices from traditional backyards to lakeshore yards.” (Lakescaping for Wildlife and Water Quality, p. 25)
For ideas about what to do with your property, call the Belgrade Lakes Conservation Corps or the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance Watershed Program (both at 495-6039), the Kennebec County Soil and Water Conservation District (622-7847) or one of our local nurseries.
What is all the excitement over Phosphorus? It’s a naturally occurring element isn’t it? Yes, it does occur naturally, and the soils here in Maine are quite high in natural phosphorus — and that is part of the problem. In an undisturbed lake ecosystem, there is very little “loose” phosphorus. Most of it is bound up in plants and in the soil. Therefore this element is not available for aquatic plants and algae. When human activity disturbs the soil, causing erosion and run-off, this unavailable element is suddenly available in abundance, and the algae and plants go wild! This is junk food to the max for algae.
And it takes very little to cause an explosion in plant and algal growth. Limnologists (scientists who study lakes) measure the amount of Phosphorus present in parts per Billion! (ppb). 15 parts per billion is equal to 15 seconds in 32 years! But a little goes a long way — more than 14 ppb of Phosphorus can cause a lake to bloom. It doesn’t always — some lakes consistently have 18-20 ppb and don’t bloom — there are many factors that contribute to the final problem. But once a lake reaches 14 ppb of phosphorus, a bloom can happen at any moment.
As the phosphorus levels rise, you can often see an increase in aquatic plant growth. Some common native species can reach nuisance levels with increased fertilization. Early increases in algal growth are harder to see, but secchi disk readings will decrease as the water becomes clouded with algae — this is often the first warning that a bloom is about to occur.
An algae bloom is defined as when the Secchi disk readings drop below 2 meters (~6 feet). This is noticeable to the naked eye as slightly cloudy water. In a severe bloom, the Secchi disk will disappear within a foot! This is the pea-soup algae bloom that we all dread. This is not a normal condition for most lakes in Maine. Maine waters are normally clear — the “average” Secchi disk reading for Maine lakes is 16′ (about 5 meters). In some parts of this country, green water is the norm, but not here.
What effect does a bloom have on the lake? In the first place it interferes with the activities that humans like — swimming, water-skiing, etc. Here in Maine, we are not used to diving into green water and having to rinse the slime off when we get out. An algae bloom also interferes with the ecology of the lake- aquatic plants cannot get the sunlight they need for growth. The dying and decomposing algae use up the oxygen in the water and that harms the fish and invertebrate populations.
Also, anoxic (zero oxygen) conditions at the bottom of a lake can set up a chemical reaction whereby phosphorus is released from the sediments into the water column, thereby feeding the algae bloom even more! (Our bottom sediments are quite high in phosphorus partly due to 250 years of human activity in our watersheds.) None of these effects are things we want to happen to our lakes, so please help us control run-off and erosion.
Secchi (“seck-ie”) disks are black and white circles 12″ in diameter — with alternating black and white quarters. They are used to measure clarity in a body of water. The disk is weighted and slowly lowered into the water using a rope marked off in feet or meters. The observer looks through a scope (to cut down on surface reflection) and notes when the disk disappears into the depths.
Why should we want to know when something disappears into the nether waters? Clarity is a proxy measurement for algae blooms. The more algae, the less visibility.
Other factors that can affect secchi disk readings are silt in the water, tannins from cedar swamps and other bogs.
Average clarity in Maine lakes is around 17 feet. In the Belgrades in 2001: Messalonskee Lake averaged almost 18′; Great Pond averaged 19.5′; Long Pond averaged 18.5′; Salmon Lake averaged 19.5′; McGrath Pond — 16.3′; North Pond averaged 16.25′; East Pond averaged 13′.
As you can see, the Belgrades are mostly above average in clarity. Now, these are averages — a lake may bloom and lose most clarity for a day or two, and it does not significantly affect the average clarity depth. So at any one time in the summer of 2001 your cove may have had clarity much lower than the averages mentioned above.
Algae blooms reduce clarity — algae feed on phosphorus from nonpoint source pollution.
Our lakes belong to all of us, and yet no one person or entity has control of them — that makes them part of “the commons.” Like the air they are there to be shared and abused by all. And therein lays the problem.
The ecologist/philosopher Garrett Hardin wrote an essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he pointed out that without strong rules to protect “the commons” the natural, human tendency is to degrade it. He used an example of cattle grazing on a common pasture — it is apparently good for the individual to graze as many cattle as possible even though this degrades the common (or public) good of preserving the resource. And all it takes is one person to begin the process. What seems like a minor enhancement in one person’s “good” leads, inevitably, to loss of the resource for all.
To bring this back to our lakes. One unbuffered lawn is, in itself, not a threat to water quality and could be construed an individual “good” for that property owner. One infringement on the shoreland zone (a building too close the shore, an oversized deck on the shore, too many trees removed) is not, in itself, a threat to the health of the lakes; and these may be, in some sense, an individual “good”. BUT, repeated ten or a hundred times these actions can have a sizeable impact on our lakes. In order to preserve these lakes for ALL of us, EACH of us must accept some limitations on our personal desires.
Within a watershed the principle way that nutrients get transported is by flowing water. This can be in an intermittent stream, a babbling brook, or a road ditch — these all carry water and its burden of phosphorus, nitrogen, and other pollutants. We all want clean streams to fish in. We all want lakes free of algal blooms. So, to obtain these goals we clean up our environment. We leave (or plant new) buffer strips next to streams. We plant (or leave) a nice wide vegetated buffer along our lake shores. This is important, but it is not enough!
In an article in Land and People, Richard Stapleton cites scientists who state: “Headwater streams, the first small rivulets that gather in swales or flow out of marshland, account for 50 percent of the total stream-miles in a watershed. This means that by the time they converge to become babbling brooks, these smallest streams already carry the pesticides, fertilizer, septage, and other runoff from 50 percent or more of a reservoir’s watershed.”
That’s right — before we even realize that there is water moving, it is already picking up nutrients. We need to think about run-off and NonPoint Source Pollution wherever we are in the watershed. Ideally, every house, building, or parking lot would have a vegetated buffer on its downhill side, even if it is located on the top of a ridge. Once erosion starts, nutrients begin moving down hill, and (unless absorbed by vegetation) will eventually end up in our lakes.
Camp Roads & Driveways
As we cut pathways through the woods surrounding our lakes, we create channels for runoff. These pathways have grown to become our current camp roads. No one ever planned them. Most of them just grew — foot path (or cow path!), driveway track to one or two camps, ultimately to 10-20 camps. Or they started as tote roads, for moving logs out of the woods. Some were even planned as roads to the shore, but the designers took the shortest route — straight down the hill!
All that leaves us now working to correct the problems. Working after the fact is never as easy as if the roads had been planned and constructed correctly in the first place. Most roads have little or no crown, poor (or non-existent) ditches. They are often too steep.
What can we do? Ditches can be added (sometimes), culverts can be replaced. Steep slopes can have different surface materials. The best typical surface material is crushed gravel, not screened — crushed (it holds together better). From there you can go to recycled asphalt, “brown-pack” or if the slope is extreme, paving is an option. When all else fails to curb erosion, asphalt can be an answer.
The BRCA office has several booklets and pamphlets on camp roads and their maintenance. I am also available to talk to you about your roads (whether we have grant money to assist you or not). The Kennebec County Soil and Water Conservation District is another source of information and expertise on roads.
Protecting the Land to Protect the Lakes
Perhaps the best way to protect the lakes we love, is to protect the land that surrounds them. Natural forest land is the best absorber of excess nutrients that we can have. All our efforts at planting buffers are only an attempt to imitate what Mother Nature does.
The more land that can be kept from development the less is the threat to our waters.
How in this age of rising property taxes can anyone afford to keep large parcels of land undeveloped? How can you guarantee that the woods you own and love will not be cut up into house lots? Talk to your local land trust!
The Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance (among its many and varied activities) is a land trust. The BRCA owns outright 372 acres of land (including French Mountain) and holds “conservation easements” on another 57 acres. With a Conservation Easement you give away the right to develop a parcel of land. You own the land, and can continue to use it for forestry, natural habitat and lake protection, you just cannot “develop” it into house lots.
There are tax advantages for giving land to a land trust — you get a charitable deduction on your income tax. There are also tax advantages to a Conservation Easement. The difference in value before and after the restrictions are in place is deductible from your income tax. Also the value of the land is less when property taxes are assessed or for estate taxes (this can mean that your children can afford to continue to own the family lands). For more information call the BRCA office — 495-6039.
The Alphabet Soup of Conservation
In the Belgrade Chain of Lakes there are six lake associations for seven lakes. They are, from the top of the chain, the East Pond Association (EPA), the North Pond Association (NPA), the Salmon Lake and McGrath Pond Association (SL/MPA), the Watson Pond Landowners Association (WPLA), the Belgrade Lakes Association (BLA) — Great and Long Ponds, and the Snow Pond-Messalonskee Lake Association (SP/MLA). And, outside the Belgrade Chain, but in the region, there is the Summer Haven Lakes Association (SHLA). These groups are active in protecting the water quality of their individual lakes and in protecting their lakes from invasive plants. If you are not a member of the association on YOUR lake — you should join today! You can call the BRCA office — 495-6039 — and we will give you the contact for your lake.
Spanning the entire region (as its name says) is the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance (BRCA) a membership organization working in many areas of environmental protection. The BRCA has several major components — 1) it is a land trust — the Kennebec Highlands is a BRCA project in conjunction with the ME Department of Conservation; the Mountain and French Mountain are BRCA properties. 2) The Conservation Corps is a BRCA program that puts high school kids to work protecting all our lakes. 3) The BRCA Watershed Program works to remedy Nonpoint Source Pollution threats in the region. 4) The BRCA Milfoil Program works with the individual lake associations to coordinate Courtesy Boat Inspections at all our public ramps.
A couple of other lakes acronyms you may run into are: COLA = the Congress of Lake Associations (a statewide group you should also support); VLMP = Volunteer Lakes Monitoring Program; and MCIAP = Maine Center for Invasive Aquatic Plants.
The Wonders of Mulch
Bark mulch is a locally produced product that can do wonders for the health of our lakes. Used liberally, it can reproduce the effects of a deep duff layer — slowing and absorbing runoff and rainfall. Mulch can be a groundcover for those shaded areas where nothing much will grow. It can be used as a surface material on seasonal driveways and parking areas. Mulch can turn an eroding pathway (that is caring phosphorus to the lake) into a neat, protective barrier.
In gardens, mulch (either bark or straw) suppresses weed growth, protects the soil from erosion, and holds moisture to improve plant growth. What a deal! Ruth Stout, a famous organic gardener, developed a whole system of (as she called it) “No work gardening,” in which she used a permanent deep mulch layer to control weeds and moisture. She also never plowed or tilled, relying on the mulch to keep the soil friable — check out her book How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back.
Bark mulch comes in a variety of colors and textures, depending upon the tree species it is derived from. Go to one of our local garden centers talk to the folks there about your particular needs. The Belgrade Regional Conservation Corps is partial to “Conservation Mix” or “Slope Stabilizer” — both of these are coarser mulches, and have clay and some soil mixed in. They are good for paths and parking areas that take a lot of traffic.
One thing to be cautious of are the “designer” mulches made from painted wood that is ground up to give different colors. These do not have the moisture holding qualities of true bark mulch. Nor do we know what the long term affects of the coloring materials might be on our lands and waters.
Development and the Health of Your Lake
At what point does development — residential or commercial — begin to impact the quality of surface waters in Maine? A study published by the George Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research (“Measuring the Impact of Development on Maine Surface Waters”) attempts to find the limits.
First, we know that development (by that I mean the conversion of natural areas to human use) impacts waterbodies in several ways: through runoff carrying sediments and pollutants into the water, by increasing water temperatures (due to the removal of shade), by reducing groundwater recharge through infiltration. These effects are caused by landscape changes such as soil disturbance and compaction, removal of vegetation, grading to enhance water runoff, clearing of shoreline and riparian zones, and an increase in impervious surface.
As more and more houses and businesses are built in our watersheds, they are going to have an impact on the water quality of the lakes. Requiring buffers and stormwater control measures can ameliorate some of the impact. But the stresses on our lakes will continue to increase. This is one of the costs of “Sprawl.”
At what point does this begin to have a measurable effect? When as little as 6-10% of the land area is converted to impermeable surface (roads, parking areas, roofs, driveways, lawns) there is measurable damage to streams — and streams feed into lakes.
What can be done? First, work for strong development ordinances in your town, ones that address the runoff from all lots. Second, make sure your town enforces all the regulations to the fullest extent. Third, look around your property and make sure that it is not contributing to the problem.
Do you have a nice thick stand of mature trees along your shoreline? Does it have an understory of shrubs and a thick duff layer on the ground? A winding path leads down through this buffer to your dock, and your swimming area free of aquatic plants. (I am not talking about the invasive species like milfoil, but our native plants)
What do trees have to do with the presence of aquatic plants around your dock? A lot, it turns out. An article in Lake Lines (the magazine of the North American Lake Management Society) talks about this relationship. Shore front properties that do not have a wooded buffer along the shore tend to have more aquatic plants in the littoral zone (the shallow area abutting the shore). This comes about from a couple of reasons — 1) plants, even aquatic plants, need sunlight to grow — shoreline trees shade the water, inhibiting plant growth. 2)A lawn does not absorb runoff well. Therefore more nutrients can reach the shore — feeding plant and macro-algae growth. A wooded buffer with a thick duff layer absorbs runoff and uses up the nutrients that would otherwise feed aquatic plants and algae.
So, what can you do if you have a thick growth of aquatic plants around your dock? You can get a permit from DEP to open a channel through them — an expensive and time consuming task. OR, you can enhance your vegetated buffer to ensure that no nutrient laden runoff is reaching the lake, and encourage the trees to grow thick and shade the near shore area.
Coarse Woody Debris
What is Coarse Woody Debris (CWD)? This consists of the tree limbs and tree trunks that are submerged or have submerged in the littoral zone adjacent to the shoreline. Studies done in Wisconsin found that as shorelines become developed the amount of Coarse Woody Debris can shrink to as little as 15% of that found along an undeveloped forested shoreline.
This can have a serious effect on shoreline erosion and wildlife populations. Tree trunks lying in the water along the shore serve to break up wave action. This lessens shoreline erosion from both wave and ice action, and is why Mother Nature does not need us to riprap her undisturbed shores. Fish populations are higher in areas with “structure” — ie stuff in the water that they can feed off or hide behind. Coarse Woody Debris provides a base on which algae and macro-invertebrates grow — thus providing food for fish. Studies in Wisconsin found that the larger predator fishes (largemouth bass) moved off shore into the deeper waters when Coarse Woody Debris was removed. Coarse Woody Debris also provides habitat for turtles, frogs, bryozoans, midge larvae and snails. Many of these become food for game fishes (or the forage fishes that feed the game fish).
In North Carolina they are experimenting with complex underwater structures that mimic Coarse Woody Debris in order to enhance fish populations in the near shore zone.
Think about how much of your shoreline you need clear of Coarse Woody Debris — a path to your dock, an area for swimming — and then leave the trees and limbs that fall into the water outside this area. You’ll be doing the lake a favor, and protecting your property.
Did you know that there are more than 447 named camp roads in the Belgrade Lakes Watershed? Some of them are only a hundred yards long, others run for a couple of miles. Every one of them is a potential threat to the health of our lakes. The BRCA Non-point Source Pollution Surveys of the watershed turned up many sites where poorly maintained roads are impacting the waters we love.
Even a well maintained road will have impacts — a road channels and directs runoff, by means of ditches and culverts. If care is not taken, this runoff can erode soils and add to the phosphorus burden in the lake below. Remember, runoff that reaches a stream has a direct connection to the lake. Proper drainage designs can mitigate this problem. There are manuals on road design and maintenance, and advice is available from the Belgrade Regional Conservation Alliance Watershed Program and the Kennebec County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Another source of nutrient loading into our lakes is dust. Yes, that nuisance dust cloud that rises from your camp road in the summer time can impact the lake. The impacts on vegetation along the road is pretty obvious, the impact to waterbodies less so. A study in Colorado found that “unpaved…roads in that state were losing approximately 2.5 tons of rock material per mile per average daily traffic.” Two and a half tons per mile ! And just how much did you pay to have that material hauled in and spread?
Go outside on a clear night and look up at the myriad of galaxies and stars — you can see forever. This is one of the reasons we live here in Maine, to be able to see the stars. Now look to the east, toward Waterville, or south toward Augusta. See that glow on the horizon? Look up at the sky from the Concourse in Waterville — how many galaxies are you able to see? What you are experiencing is “Light Pollution.” All those non-directional street lights, parking lot lights, backyard lights. Sky glow over lakes in more urban areas can reach the amplitude of 66% of the light of a full moon — that is every night!
Then there is the light pollution in your own yard. How does the lighting around your house or camp measure up? Are you cutting yourself off from the glory of the galaxies? Do you really need everything lit up?
There is another effect of light pollution. It can disrupt movements of animals –it is well known that hatchling sea turtles head for the brightest sky, unfortunately these days that is away from the water and toward roads and parking lots. Closer to home studies have shown that sky glow effects zooplankton migration. These critters rise up in the water column every night toward the surface to feed on algae. If it is too bright, they do not rise as high, allowing the algae in the surface waters to proliferate.
What can you do? Use lighting that is directed downward and shielded from dissipating upward — this is also a more efficient use of your electric dollars. Use motion detectors to turn lights on when needed. Let’s keep the skies visible for all of us!
What, you may ask, is a “rain garden”? This is a great new way to deal with potentially polluted run-off from roads, parking lots, driveways and roofs. “It is a bowl shaped garden, designed to absorb stormwater run-off from impervious surfaces.” (Rain Gardens of West Michigan website http://www.raingardens.org). Unlike those grass-covered “stormwater retention basins” that you may have noticed along highways or off large parking lots, a Rain Garden is planted with native plants and shrubs that don’t mind having their feet (roots) wet. Thus, what starts out as an engineering feature, becomes a thing of beauty!
A Rain Garden is not meant to be a wetland or a water garden. Water will pond in the Rain Garden after a heavy rain, but quickly soaks into the ground (although you can design one so that it is more like a wetland, if you wish). The plants should be native upland perennials and shrubs. Ideally, deep-rooted plants that will quickly take up both the water and the pollutants associated with the run-off. These systems have been extensively tested in Maryland, and other states, and they have been found to be very efficient removers of NPS pollutants.
This takes the vegetated buffer to another level. Rather than just trying to filter the run-off, this would actually collect the run-off from your camp driveway and roof, clean it, and return it to the ground before it can impact the lake. For a list of native plant suitable for either a vegetated buffer or a Rain Garden, call the BRCA office at 495-6039.
Invasive Species and Water Gardens
Last week, in the piece on Rain Gardens, I mentioned “Water Gardens.” These are very popular – an artificial pond, or pool, with native and exotic aquatic plants growing in an around the water. They can be quite beautiful and add a lovely focal point to your yard. The problem comes with what plants you choose for your pool.
If you buy one of the many books on water gardens, or if you go on the web, you will find that many of the plants recommended for your backyard pond are on the state of Maine’s Invasive Plant list. Milfoils (both Eurasian and Variable-leafed), Curly-leafed Pondweed, European Frogbit, etc. These plants are highly recommended for these artificial environments because they are tough! You can’t kill them. And there is the problem, when they get loose into the environment they tend to takeover! And we don’t need any more invasive aquatic plants threatening our lakes.
ME DEP and the ME Department of Agriculture have done a great job alerting garden centers about the dangers of these plants — however, they are still available by mail order or over the web. Some sellers know (and label) plants that are illegal in Maine, others are either ignorant or uncaring — so it is up to us to be knowledgeable about what is and is not permitted.
There are native alternatives, or at least non-invasive alternatives, to these exotics. Talk to the folks at one of our local garden centers, they can steer you toward a beautiful and environmentally friendly garden.
Invasive Species: Earthworms
Okay, you must be thinking I have finally lost my mind! The gardener’s friend, the composter’s delight is a problem !! Yep.
Let’s go back to the Ice Age — the glaciers wiped out all life in the northern sections of North America, scraped many areas down to bare rock. When they retreated, the forests moved back north, and many species of animals successfully recolonized this region. But earthworms are not terribly mobile, and the northern forests never had to adapt to these little burrowers. Virtually all the earthworms found north of the glaciers’ limits are non-native! They have come in on plant roots, in flower pots, etc. They are well established in fields and pastures and suburban lawns (and my compost pile!).
The big problem comes when they get into the northern forests. Earthworms are such good decomposers that they destroy the “duff” layer — that mix of decaying leaves and needles and twigs that gives the forest floor its spongy feel. And without the duff layer many wildflowers, shrubs, and even trees cannot reproduce. Also this duff layer works to soak up rainfall, runoff and nutrients; providing a filter to protect our lakes!
So what can we do? Around our homes and gardens — not much. But we can protect the forests by not taking worms into areas they do not belong. When you are done fishing, take those worms home and dispose of them in the trash — they do not belong on the ground in the woods. A study conducted in Wisconsin found that earthworm damage to the forest floor was greatest and most widespread around those lakes with the heaviest fishing pressure. Time to switch to lures?
More Invasive Species: Fishes and Crayfish
Our lakes are under a number of threats — many of them are not exactly high on the public’s screen. One issue that has become a major problem is the introduction, both accidental and deliberate, of non-native species of fish. This disrupts the community of native fish and leads to a whole host of changes in the lake environment.
Pike are often introduced by “bait-bucket biologists” who think that they are doing something to enhance the fishing opportunities, while they are actually ruining the native fishery. Maine’s lakes have developed their fish communities since the glaciers left adding another species can disrupt the whole shebang. Alewives are another species that have been illegally introduced into many ponds — these fish are native to Maine, but are not able to negotiate falls more than a foot high. There are also non-native minnows taking over some of our lakes and driving out the native species. These are bait fish that have been released by fishermen. Take your bait home with you and dispose of any leftovers in the trash (or feed them to your cats).
Studies in England and Europe have linked, in some cases, introduced fish species to algal blooms — the introduced fishes eat all (or most) of the zooplankton that kept the phytoplankton (algae) in check.
Belgrade resident Matt Scott has been studying crawfish populations in Maine — and here too, non-native critters, used for bait, are taking over our waters and disrupting the native community. What the long range outcomes of these disruptions will be is unclear, but already we can see our native fish — trout and salmon in particular — being stressed, if not eliminated by competition from non-natives.
Pesticides and Fertilizers
How does your lawn grow? How big a threat to the lake you love is your lawn care program?
This is an important question. Every year tons of fertilizers and pesticides are dumped on lawns in Maine in a effort to get that perfect green sward. If you have been following these articles, you know that you need a buffer between any lawn area and the lake. This prevents run-off from carrying soil and fertilizers to the water. Remember the smaller the lawn, the better it is for the lake (and less to mow on the weekend!).
If you have to have some lawn, there are a couple of things you can do to make your life easier and also put less stress on the environment. First, pick the appropriate grass! There are big differences in grass species. Talk to folks at your local nursery or the Maine Co-operative Extension about what species is right for your site. Then do a soil test! It is a waste of money to add fertilizers that are not needed — and the excess washes into the lake! Use fertilizers that have NO PHOSPHORUS — grass doesn’t need added Phosphorus — and algae love it.
According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, most lawns in Maine are drug-addicted. They are awash in nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides. Over fertilized grass is subject to stress and stressed plants attract predators. Then homeowners in Maine dump 1.8 million pounds (2001 figures) of lawn care pesticides on the grass in an effort to curb these pests on their stressed lawns. Think about it — how much lawn do you really need or want?