Our Lake and River Shorelines are at a Turning Point

Our Lake and River Shorelines are at a Turning Point

Our lakes are in trouble and the situation is urgent. If we want to manage water, we must manage land. As lake shore property owners we have both a significant opportunity and exposure to negative impacts from water quality decline.

According to shoreline specialists at the MN DNR, about half our natural shorelines in Minnesota have been developed. In some areas it is even more.

If we do not protect our natural shorelands, we will risk losing lake and river water quality and the ability to swim and recreate in our lakes. We risk the call of the loon, the spring chorus of frogs, habitat for birds, butterflies and more. We will lose the unique character of Minnesota. 

But beyond aesthetics and amenity, we risk significant financial loss, particularly as shoreland property owners.

Near shore fish habitat is particularly important for fish survival.

We risk losing valuable fish habitat, threatening an angling industry estimated to generate $1.9 billion in direct angler spending, $3.7 billion in total economic impact, $948 million in wages and salaries, and over 47,293 jobs in Minnesota.

Loss of shoreline and the water quality dependent on healthy shorelines also threatens Minnesota’s boating industry. Minnesota ranks first in boat owners per capita. In 2020 Minnesotans bought $1.1 billion worth of powerboats, engines, trailers, and accessories. That marked a 14 percent increase over 2019.

But we also risk losing the very basis of our economy, particularly in greater Minnesota. In six counties, the value of lake shore property makes up more than 50% of the tax base. If water quality declines, property tax revenues will decline, forcing other property owners to backfill the gap or risk losing schools, police, roads, and the human services provided by our local governments.

According to a recent Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal article, listings of Minnesota lake property jumped by more than 46% since this time last year. Current listings of lake property in Minnesota reached a value of $2.9 billion in mid-August, making the state the fourth-largest such real estate market in the nation behind Texas, Florida and Washington.

The Minnesota lake property market is also the highest it’s been in the past three years, topping previous highs of about $1.8 billion in 2020 and $2.3 billion in 2019.

This burst of shoreline real estate activity is not limited to the sale of existing homes and cabins, but also the redevelopment and subdivision of shoreline. The 85 Counties in MN that manage riparian properties issued 8,846 land use permits in 2020, which is higher than last year’s total (6,797). In 2012 there were 1,207 permits issued for new development on undeveloped shoreline lots. In 2020 there were 2220 permits issued for new development on shoreline lots. In 2020 the counties created 1,187 new shoreland lots, the majority by lot splits. This is the highest number since 2012. And while the number of variances granted by the counties has been declining over time, in 2020 there were 644 variances granted. 

Currently one fifth of counties do not require compliance inspections or system  upgrades whenever a variance or permit of any  kind is granted (see Figure 4). This is a  shoreland rule requirement. One fifth of all  counties are not carrying it out. 

The first minimum shoreland standards were adopted over fifty years ago, yet still our shorelines have continued to decline. These standards are difficult to enforce, often requiring one neighbor to turn in another neighbor. Aggressive enforcement by a government body can result in significant citizen backlash. Even the best shoreland standards can be undone in the variance process.

So if we know that current strategies; top-down control through rules, education campaigns, and enforcement have not been able to protect shoreland and the water quality dependent on them, what should we do?

In my work as MLR Executive Director, I work with many different people and organizations. I have seen presentations on efforts that have failed and those that have made progress.  

I have learned:

  • Engaged lake associations can shift local culture toward a water quality preservation aesthetic,
  • Local government resource managers need more technical guidance on shoreline restoration. They also lack the time and/or resources to meet the demand from shoreland property owners for shoreline restoration projects.  
  • Civic organizing of lake associations and other local civic groups, local government resource managers and state agencies can be effective in providing resources and  shifting social norms and perspectives (based on values). 
  • There are programs in neighboring states that might be models to advance Minnesota lake stewardship.
    • Incentive payments to lake shore owners that go far beyond current statutes and take significant steps to prevent runoff into the lake,
    • Lake Improvement Districts can raise reliable funds for restoration and expertise, apply for government grants, and serve as a conduit for civic partnerships with Natural Resource Departments and Extension Services.
    • Lake associations often have members with significant natural resource management experience. 

It is true that Minnesota’s shorelines and the lakes and rivers dependent on them are being degraded. But is also true that lake shore owners, particularly in Minnesota, have organized themselves into lake associations that have a great potential to change the trends. There are over 500 lake associations in Minnesota, one of the highest numbers in the United States. They are working to educate their members on good shoreline management, connecting members to resources to repair or replace failing septic systems, run aquatic invasive species programs, drive fish stocking efforts, create “water trails,” shore fishing stations and camping sites as well as many other activities to protect and improve Minnesota’s public waters. By building effective partnership among these lake associations, local government resource managers, and state agencies there is a great potential to reverse these disturbing trends and ensure our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren can enjoy Minnesota’s beautiful heritage of pristine lakes and rivers.