NALMS Takes a Stand for Clean Lakes Programming & Lake Shoreland Protection

By Jessica Converse, NALMS Policy Intern; NALMS 314 Working Group

Read the position statement and white paper here

Lake conditions change slowly over time, but their transformations are not to be minimized. These inland bodies of water are sentinels of climate change impacts over broader catchment scales. Additionally, diminished lake quality exacerbates the release of greenhouse gases (Beaulieu et al., 2019) and encourages harmful cyanobacteria growth (Paerl, 2017), both of which impact public health. Without concerted effort to protect and restore water quality as well as reimagine investment into lake communities, we further jeopardize our most precious resource: fresh water. Unimpaired lakes support a greater abundance of life, are more resilient to the effects of climate change, and require less money to maintain than lakes requiring restoration. That is why, in addition to shoreland restoration efforts, NALMS is pushing for a protective stance to be taken, so that we can protect the best of what’s left for the lakes and for the people.

Hidden Lake by Alex Boskovic

Lakes provide innumerable ecosystem and cultural services that support all aspects of our lives. Lakes with good water quality even add economic value to nearby homes as well as bring significant tourism and recreation to their waters (Reynaud & Lanzanova, 2017; Schuetz et al., 2001).Yet, high-quality lakes across the U.S. continent are disappearing, a fate that will impact the coldwater fish species and fishing communities that rely on them (Matthews et al., 2018; Stoddard et al., 2016). Globally, freshwater lakes are losing biodiversity at twice the rate of loss for land or ocean vertebrates (Tickner et al., 2020). It is imperative that the United States do more to meet international conservation targets for lakes and freshwater biodiversity (McCullough et al., 2019). We could further our impact on such high priorities by restoring funding to the Clean Lakes Program but with enhanced qualities that support a healthy lakes component and environmental justice goals.

It would be remiss if we did not mention that the COVID-19 pandemic has left none unaffected, our lakes included. With more people working remotely from home, there has been a surge in folks looking for lakeshore property away from the city. Finding available lakeshore property is itself difficult and finding undeveloped lake shorelands is rarer still. This has led NALMS to develop a Lake Shoreland Protection position to defend our lakes against development to meet such housing demands. By protecting the natural, heavily vegetated condition of lake shorelands (an area encompassing the near-shore upland and littoral lake zones), high-quality lakes and lakes in healthy condition can maintain their own regulatory balances. This is consistent with the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Lakes Assessment finding that undeveloped lakes support healthier combined habitat conditions than those of man-made or disturbed lakes (US EPA, 2009, 2016). It is important to recognize that  most lakes may never return to their natural condition, however it is possible to protect what undeveloped shoreland remains and restore others to the best of our ability. Our lakes are clearly in peril, and without guidance or funding for lake shoreland protection, high-quality lakes will continue to be lost.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2007 and 2012 National Lake Assessments (NLA) broadcast what many lake professionals have noticed themselves, that healthy lake condition is declining. The national assessments, derived from a representative sample of U.S. lakes, have provided baseline measurements on water quality, biological condition, habitat condition, and recreational suitability on a continental scale. It was found that over the course of five years, phosphorus and nitrogen levels, cyanobacteria risk, microcystin detections, chlorophyll α risk, lakeshore disturbance, and degraded biological conditions as measured by benthic macroinvertebrates all increased. The EPA found total phosphorus and total nitrogen to be the most significant indicators of risk to lake health. They have recommended nutrient reductions be the number one priority for lake managers nationwide (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2016). This recommendation has been the priority since the early 1990s and has focused water quality improvement efforts toward addressing non-point sources of pollution across watersheds almost exclusively. 

The primary focus of the EPA’s water quality programs since 1994 have been to restore impaired waters and reduce pollutant levels in waterways. This was also the year that funding was eliminated for the Clean Lakes Program (Section 314) of the U.S. Clean Water Act (CWA). Funding was directed toward necessary efforts to mitigate nonpoint sources of pollution, but very few resources have been allocated to protect and preserve existing high-quality waters since. The EPA, state, tribal and other partners have made, and continue to make, considerable progress in reclaiming waters and addressing pollution. There is no doubt that they must continue to do so, and appropriations to the Nonpoint Source Management Program (Section 319) of the CWA should remain a priority. Nevertheless, existing funding strategies do not appear to be enough to reverse the declining lake water quality trends in the U.S. To this point, it is critical to protect and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of all waterbodies, as was intended by Congress and the CWA. In addition to nonpoint source initiatives, critical aspects of lake health need to be prioritized and include lake-specific criteria, such as those outlined in an updated Section 314 Clean Lakes Program.

Despite its lake-specific focus, the current form of Section 314 does not sufficiently protect lakes with high-quality water as it is geared more toward monitoring and restoring lakes. It was determined in 1994 that the Clean Lakes programming did not effectively address watershed-wide pollution issues but rather fostered habitual in-lake treatments. However, scientifically justified in-lake projects that address internal nutrient loading and harmful algal blooms are generally not supported by existing funding streams leading to some shortsighted practices and inconsistent mitigation strategies. Consequently, states such as New York, Vermont and Minnesota are now spending large sums of state tax revenue on lake projects. Instead, states need more resources for monitoring, diagnostic studies, protection, restoration interventions and follow-up monitoring. A program dedicated to lakes will streamline the divergence of funding strategies and prioritize a more coordinated effort to address the many stressors of lakes. Not only does funding need to be restored to the Section 314 Clean Lakes Program, but it also needs to be updated to include a healthy lakes component as well as address climate change and environmental justice priorities.

Lakes are as individual as the people around them. Lake morphology, geology, deposition of sediment, and water level fluctuation vary nationwide. Funding for data gathered across heterogenous regions by local lake managers can help provide a framework for policymakers and researchers to address the unique and most immediate areas requiring attention. By including in such assessments the social vulnerabilities of all community water users, local lake managers can ensure that equity issues surrounding current and future demands on water for drinking, recreation, and cultural purposes are not ignored. Intentional effort must be made to ensure that the diversity of the community is reflected in the groups responsible for lake management, policy development and public outreach. Socially equitable and environmentally just actions must combat gentrification, minimize pollutant exposure, ensure affordable housing, and provide for public access to lakes. This further underscores the importance of supporting watershed-wide issues with funding specific to lake systems; lakes support the people, and we support the lakes.


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