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Survive and Thrive

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Photo by Darlene Charboneau Photo by Darlene Charboneau

The importance of vegetative buffers

Life on the lake is hard to beat. Living in a place that boasts one of the deepest lakes in the continent is one thing, and living on that lake is in a whole other category of cool. Though the thought of it makes most of us non-lake habitants intensely jealous, living on the lake also comes with some very vital responsibilities.

Fresh water is one of those critical resources that everybody depends on. People need fresh water to survive and thrive, but so do many other species. The number of people living near and using our waters is at an all time high. The use of land adjacent to a lake largely determines the quality of its water in the nearshore areas, especially for large lakes like Pend Oreille. Consider the land uses in our watershed, the area that drains or “sheds” its water to the lake.

Though we all live in a watershed and as such, have a responsibility to protect it, those that live directly on the water can be considered the last line of defense for limiting what makes it to the water.

There are many things for shoreline homeowners to consider when managing their properties—probably more than anyone else even. Some of these factors include protecting the lake from stormwater runoff, holding the soil in place to protect the property, and even providing habitat for the likes of deer, elk, birds, and butterflies.  

One way to accomplish many of these objectives is to retain or plant a vegetative buffer strip between the shoreline and the structures on the property. A vegetative buffer acts as the bridge between two very different worlds—that of our terrestrial existence which includes humans and our homes, roads, and cars, as well as the animals that live on the land, and that of the aquatic world. This aquatic world is an ecosystem that interacts with the terrestrial world, but can also be adversely affected by it. The aquatic world is sensitive to the terrestrial world; the balance is what makes it work.  

The shallow margin of our lakes is an integral part of an aquatic ecosystem. In fact, approximately 90 percent of the living things in our water are found in the “littoral zone,” (from shoreline to as deep as sunlight penetrates).

“The littoral zone is where you find most aquatic life,” explains Dr. Frank Wilhelm, Assistant Professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho. “In Lake Pend Oreille, the open waters are largely an abyss. There might be some lake trout, zooplankton and phytoplankton, but compared to the nearshore, the offshore is a desert.”

Not only does a vegetative buffer protect important species in the water, it also presents the most natural view from the water’s edge, protects the integrity of shoreland habitat, and helps screen adjacent properties and protect privacy.

“Obvious benefits include such things as aesthetics and reduced erosion,” says Dr. Wilhelm. “Mature buffer strips that are fairly large can make it feel like you’re the only one on the lake—not in an urban setting even if you are.”

Wilhelm also cites buffers as very important for their role in providing wildlife corridors for movement around a lake as well as from the lake to upland habitat. Buffers can keep nuisance geese and biting insects from becoming a problem on shoreland property. Predators can hide in taller vegetation, so geese are less inclined to wander through the buffer to get to a lawn.

Fish in streams love vegetative buffers, too. The shade provided by vegetation helps to keep the water cool. Good water quality and reduced runoff can increase fish numbers quickly. Clean and productive tributaries to lakes are a key component to healthy fish habitat.

“Fish benefit from overhanging root systems that provide shade and cover,” says Mike Miller, Coordinator for the Lower Clark Fork Watershed Group. “Also, large woody debris that falls into the stream helps to create pools and cover for fish.”

When choosing plant species for a vegetative buffer, there are many factors to consider, such as drought and flood tolerance, proximity to water, view-lane maintenance, and providing good habitat for local critters. A great resource for landowners is your local Conservation District; in Bonner County this would be the Bonner Soil & Water Conservation District (www.icehouse.net/ksswcd/bonner/index.htm), in Sanders County, the Green Mountain Conservation District (www.greenmountaincd.org).

“Species that are low-growing with components of grasses, perennials, and woody plants are ideal for maintaining a view lane,” suggests Greg Becker, District Conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service. “You can also plant trees in clumps instead of a uniform pattern to leave open views. That’s really how things grow in nature anyway.”

Many advocate native species for vegetative buffers as they are suited for the area, require no fertilizers or extra water, and are low maintenance species.

“Native plant species are preferred,” says Miller. “In the lower Clark Fork shrub species would include alder, red-osier dogwood, willow, snowberry, serviceberry, hawthorn, Woods rose and chokecherry.  Tree species would include western red cedar, western larch, Englemann spruce, western white pine, Douglas-fir, and black cottonwood.”  

If you love your lawn, whether you live on the lake or not, there are some things that you can do to better protect water quality, fish, and wildlife. If you currently use fertilizer to keep a green lawn, a good thing to do is conduct a simple soil test. These tests are inexpensive and easy to use; they are available at the University of Idaho extension offices.

Dr. Wilhelm explains that there are usually enough nutrients in your soil already to sustain turf grasses—and they don’t take up any more than they need. Excessive nutrients that aren’t being taken up by plants run off of them—down to the storm drain, the ditch, the stream, the lake. Dr. Wilhelm suggests cutting turf grasses long (three inches or more) in order to: 1) prevent weeds from getting sunlight, 2) promote good root growth, and 3) keep moisture in the grass.  

The taller the vegetation and the deeper the roots in your vegetative buffer, the more the lake is protected from runoff. Fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides can run right off a lawn to the water, impacting more than just a little patch of green grass. In addition, the Lake Pend Oreille Management Plan discourages the use of pesticides and fertilizers within 20 feet of surface waters (www.tristatecouncil.org/reports.html).

If you are considering purchasing shoreline property and there is an existing vegetative buffer, the best thing to do is retain it, as long as the species present are not a problem. Invasive species have gotten an edge over natives partly due to people not knowing what will happen when exotic species are released locally. For this reason, Bonner County now requires that shoreline landowners plant only “beneficial species,” for which there is a list available at the planning website, along with the Land Use Codes relating to buffers (www.co.bonner.id.us/planning/index.html).

For all new construction on Lake Pend Oreille, the Pend Oreille River, or the Clark Fork River, a 40 foot vegetative buffer must be maintained. For new construction on other rivers and streams in Bonner County, there is a 75 foot setback, of which the first 40 feet need to be a vegetative buffer.

In Sanders County, there is no set ordinance in place, but the County Planner can recommend setbacks. Any streamside work must have approval of a 310 Permit, which can be obtained from the Green Mountain Conservation District.

Avista Utilities owns the majority of the shoreline associated with Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge dams on the lower Clark Fork River.  Avista, along with the signatories of the Clark Fork Settlement Agreement have developed and implement a Land Use Management Plan that provides guidance as to what activities can occur on Avista lands.

“The focus is to maintain the native vegetation along the shoreline as much as possible, while still allowing for public use,” says Nate Hall, Terrestrial Program Leader for Avista. “This is done for a multitude of reasons including providing important fish and wildlife habitat, preventing erosion, preventing the runoff of lawn chemicals from reaching the reservoirs in surface runoff, and also to maintain the rural and rustic character of the shorelines.”

Another great local resource is the “Lake*A*Syst” program, a voluntary educational program aimed at assisting shoreline property owners in making well informed decisions for the management of their lakefront property.

The new Lake*A*Syst Coordinator Molly McCahon is working hard to inform folks about how they can protect water quality. She sees the new Bonner County Land Use Codes as a step towards better buffers and a more informed populace.

“I am developing a plant list, derived from the counties beneficial plant list, which will list the native plants available at our local nurseries,” says McCahon. “Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for landowners to purchase native plants, as well as encourage nurseries to carry a diverse selection.”

McCahon recently took over the Lake*A*Syst program and is anxious to get started working with landowners this spring. She has lots of ideas on how to promote good land use practices.

“I would also like to organize a Vegetative Buffer Tour—it would be a fun and effective way to give landowners ideas for developing their own quality buffer.”

If you or someone you know has a shoreline vegetative buffer that successfully retains soil and filters nutrients, call McCahon (208-263-5310).

Whether you live on the water or just love to look at it, everyone plays an important role in protecting their watershed. Vegetation is a massively important factor in defending the sparkling water that trickles from the snow-capped mountains, through the trees, the berry bushes, the ferns, and the sedges, all the way to the lake.

If you do live on the lake, be proud of your buffer! Help us protect fresh water, for the benefit of humanity now and for the future, for the wildlife, for the fish, for the good quality that brought us all here in the first place. A clean lake, after all, begins at your doorstep.

Illustration provided courtesy of University of Montana, photo by Darlene Carboneau.

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Kate Wilson Kate Wilson Kate Wilson is the Project Coordinator for the Pend Oreille Basin Commission

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