Citizens’ Roles in Managing Lakes
When I began as a lake scientist and manager, I wanted to have a role in cleaning lakes. Now, more than 35 years later, I am frustrated with insufficient tangible outcomes from our lake programs. Sure there have been success stories, however for the time, effort and money we have dedicated to fixing lakes, we can do much better.
Rain gardens, native plantings, permeable pavers and many other runoff control projects, called best management practices or BMPs, are helping our lakes when implemented by individuals and neighborhoods, right? Not so fast.
Most often these well-intentioned actions are applied lacking clear objectives or any management context. The intended or expected benefits do not occur.
The lake management profession has long encouraged citizens to help improve lakes and our institutions have gotten into the act. Pretty much every agency and do-gooder environmental organization has a “What You Can Do” element to their programs. Unfortunately, we have over-sold the role of citizen-based initiatives by unrealistically raising their expectations.
Most lake impairments are the result of widespread and hardwired changes to the landscape. BMPs, at best, provide minimal mitigation. In addition, many impaired lakes no longer are responsive to pollution reductions because the impairments are internalized.
Then, should we abandon these practices? No. We should urge their use in a larger management context, applying them strategically as part of a management plan that has clear expectations and outcomes.
If we continue on the current track – training, encouraging and rewarding citizens to implement BMPs with no objective management context – I fear are misleading our citizens to expect lakes are improving as a result of their collective actions. I see no evidence of this. In fact, the state’s list of impaired lakes keeps growing.
Advising citizens that BMPs are good is like advising people to eat less fat. Less fat in your diet is generally considered “good,” but if you are morbidly obese or have serious cardiac issues, “good” is not good enough and you’d be ill advised to rely on that as the sole strategy for maintaining health.
Diamond Lake in Minneapolis is a “poster child” for my point. The Clean Water Legacy Fund granted the Friends of Diamond Lake $224,224, which along with leveraged funds reached a total of $598,324 for their “Go Blue Diamond Lake Community Makeover.” The Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) refers to this project as “A Clean Water Success Story.” The MCWD report noted these outcomes: 25 rain gardens, 14 permeable pavement systems, 22 rain barrels, 3 RainXChange systems, 4 trees planted, 1.5 million gallons of runoff diverted and 3.3 pounds of phosphorus (per year) prevented from entering Diamond Lake. Of the listed outcomes, the only actual pollutant was phosphorus.
So, what was the problem phosphorus caused in Diamond Lake and how well did this project mitigate it?
First of all, Diamond Lake isn’t a lake. It is a “high profile wetland” according to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB). According to the MPRB, the usual measures of water quality (like phosphorus) do not apply to wetlands. Also, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), Diamond Lake is not impaired for phosphorus – it is impaired for chlorides, which this project did not address.
What about the phosphorus reduction of 3.3 pounds per year? Aside from Diamond Lake not being impaired for phosphorus, the MPRB’s management plan for Diamond Lake neither assessed possible impacts of excessive (or any) phosphorus nor recommended any specific phosphorus reduction goals. On the other hand, the MCWD is requiring an 84-pound reduction (but with no expected outcome reported). So, the 3.3 pounds is about 4% of that target. On a unit cost basis, it could cost an additional $15 million to remove the remainder, even though it is unclear that phosphorus is a problem in the first place.
I know some of the people involved in the Diamond Lake project. They are motived by a sincere desire to improve Diamond Lake. In this case, and in many, many cases like this, they have been led to expect water quality improvements in Diamond Lake, which will not occur as a result of this project.
I don’t know what the real water quality problems in Diamond Lake are. Apparently neither does anyone else. I found several references to the lake having an “F” grade, but as the MPRB noted, this grading system is not applicable to wetlands (I agree, I invented the grading system). In the documentation for this project, there was an overall lack of good planning. I found no definitive statement of specific problem(s), no diagnostic assessment or modeling, no statement of measurable goals or outcomes.
The Friends of Diamond Lake participated in this publically funded project with good faith and the expectation that Diamond Lake would be improved as a result of their efforts. Instead, they got a 4% reduction in a non-problem at a great cost.
Our institutions have done a poor job at restoring impaired lakes. It’s time to engage citizens in effective and meaningful ways to help make our lakes better. We should all do our part to reduce runoff and remove pollution, but we must do much more if we want to clean up our lakes.
Those having the responsibility for protecting and improving our lakes can better engage citizens and citizens can be better advocates for the lakes they care about. Here is how:
- We should expect and demand real, measurable improvements in lake quality with the investment of public money and citizen efforts. This can happen only when we clearly identify the problem(s) affecting our lake, accurately diagnose and quantify the causes, list measurable outcomes (and measure them), then demonstrate how each management action is necessary to accomplish the goal.
- Citizens should expect to have meaningful roles and responsibilities in protecting and caring for lakes they love. When asked to implement actions in their yards or neighborhoods, they should have good information regarding how their actions contribute (or not) to a common goal.
- Citizens can and should do their part to reduce runoff and pollution in runoff. This is good general advice. Even if these efforts do not result in significant pollution reductions, it gives citizens good standing to expect the agencies charged with improving our lakes to achieve results.
Our lakes are in trouble and citizens want to help. Let’s lead them down a path toward cleaner lakes.