"Vegging Out" on Big Averill Lake: Lakeshore Restoration and The Vermont Lake Wise Program
I love to “veg out” when I head up to the Averills. I have an exciting and challenging day job but coming up to our lakes even for a short weekend visit allows me to take a cognitive break, enter a calm state of relaxation, and then mentally refuel for the week ahead.
But this fall and winter those of us who represent lake communities have not been in a “calm state of relaxation” as we navigate the pending regulations on wake boating. At the public hearing with ~400 people in attendance (in person and online) on February 15 – lake community representative after lake community representative implored the state that the proposed operating “minimum distance to shore” regulation needed to be doubled from 500 feet to 1000 feet because of the existential threat of shoreline erosion.
The threat of shoreline erosion had its statewide media moment. I was proud that 3 of us from the Averills had a chance to testify on the regulations and the right to opt out. But the emotional testimony I will remember the most was from a representative of Echo Lake – the first lake in Vermont to earn the State’s Gold Lake Wise Award. He wondered if all of the commitment and work by 36 lakeshore owners to protect and restore their lake was about to be thrown away for the benefit of a very few. I first heard of the Lake Wise program from ALA member Lu Van Zeeland at our 2022 Annual Meeting. She has been a major advocate for this on Big Averill. Lake Wise is a State of Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) sponsored crowdsourced lakeshore landscaping program that provides education, technical assistance, and recognition to landowners, camp owners, and lake communities who prevent or fix erosion and runoff problems by restoring lakeshore vegetation and hence protect lake water quality and wildlife habitat. Vermont's Federation of Lakes and Ponds' Guide to Healthy Lakes Using Lakeshore Landscaping provides a great overview of the rationale: Vegetative shoreland buffers, located along lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands, and ponds are the single most effective protection for water quality, lake ecosystems, and essential wildlife habitat. These strips of vegetation, which include ground covers, herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees, as well as the organic matter that accumulates on the ground, serve as transitional areas where land and water meet to create unique and highly productive ecosystems. The canopy created by trees, shrubs and herbaceous vegetation moderates the impact of heavy rains, shades the shoreline to reduce water temperature, and produces organic matter and woody debris essential to maintaining healthy shallow-water ecosystems. Root systems also give structure to the soil, hold soil in place, direct rainfall down into the soil instead of over the soil, and can extract nutrients and filter contaminates from the soil. The abundance of water and the diversity of plant communities in vegetated buffers help support a variety of aquatic and terrestrial life. The State of Vermont DEC has also provided guidance for minimum and maximum effectiveness widths for lakeshore vegetation, restoration, and protection and the ecosystem “beneficiaries” of it:
In the summer and fall of 2022, 5 out of the 6 property owners on the entire north shoreline of Big Averill Lake have had either formal assessments or informational walk-throughs with the Lake Wise Program. In addition, 4 properties on Cottage Road have had formal assessments.
Four Big Averill properties have already earned the Lake Wise award, and all of the others are in the process of making changes towards improving the way they manage their shorelines.
The before and after photos above were taken from the Munson property on Lake View Road. This property is an example of improvements that can be made on shorelines that were established before the laws changed around setbacks and vegetation. They have stopped mowing down to the water, allowed the natural vegetation to return, and added native wildflower plantings. This has helped prevent runoff, made the shoreline more engaging visually, and created a habitat to watch birds, butterflies and other pollinators, minks, otters, fox and other wildlife. In an e-mail exchange with Lu, she remarked: I encourage folks to set up either an informal walk-through of their property or a formal assessment with Lake Wise. There is no obligation to make changes, and Lake Wise isn’t an enforcer. I found it exciting and encouraging to see the shoreline through a different lens with Lake Wise, and then to play with ways to combine less mowing and the installation of native flowers to make a win-win situation for beauty, lake quality, and pollinator and wildlife habitat. This is all consistent with the benefits in restoring and conserving the lakeshore as enumerated by the Vermont DEC:
Maintains naturally vegetated and stable shores essential for protecting lake water quality, ecosystems, and resiliency.
Supports critical ecological functions of soil stability, water filtration, and nutrient cycling now and in the future.
Helps your community by protecting water, wildlife, and places that benefit well being (aka “vegging out” by humans).
Maintain property values
To earn the Lake Wise Award a property is evaluated in four categories. Not only Lakeshore but Recreation Area, Driveway, and Septic & Structure. If a property has excellent stormwater runoff practices, but no native shoreland vegetation, then it may earn a Lake Wise Certificate, but not the full Award sign. Passing two of the four categories earns a Certificate, but to post an Award sign that showcases a property as a model for lake friendly living, the property must pass all four categories. Lake Associations with 15 percent awarded participation in the Lake Wise Program will receive the Gold Lake Wise Award like Echo Lake..
With the heightened awareness of shoreline erosion and the rise of phosphorus and other nutrients in our beautiful lakes – I’d recommend we follow Lu’s and the Munson’s example, the example of the landowners on the north shore of Big Averill, and the landowners on Echo Lake and get a Lake Wise Assessment of our own properties. I’ve already reached out for mine. Our contact with the Vermont Lake Wise Program is Alison Marchione. And she is looking forward to continuing her work in the Averills this summer. She can be reached at Alison.Marchione@vermont.gov Postscript
The Board of Directors and leadership of the Averill Lakes Association has been focused on sharing data and information with our members and community stakeholders on our own research, data shared by the state of Vermont, and scholarly research that includes our lakes so that we can collectively make better informed decisions. These can be found on the Little Averill and Big Averill resource pages on the website. In the same spirit I am sharing here the references that the Vermont DEC used to establish their minimum and maximum effectiveness widths for lakeshore vegetation. You will see two names well known to the Averills – VT DEC Aquatic Ecologist Kellie Merrell who spoke at our ALA Annual Meeting in 2022 and VT DEC Limnologist Mark Mitchell who oversees our lay water quality monitoring program on Little Averill Lake. Shoreline Stability:
Stabilization Measures for an Eroding Lakeshore. Vermont Lake Protection Series #3B. Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Montpelier, VT. (10’ to 15’ minimum width).
FEMAT. 1993. Forest Ecosystem Management: An Ecological, Economic, and Social Assessment. Report of the Forest Ecosystem Management Team July 1993. USFS, USF&WS, BLM, NPS, and EPA.
Robert J. Naiman, Robert E. Bilby, and Peter A. Bisson. 2000. Riparian Ecology and Management in the Pacific Coastal Rain Forest. Bioscience. Vol. 50 No. 11 .
Shoreline Habitat (in terms of Plant Diversity)
S. C. Spackman and J. W. Hughes. 1995. Assessment of minimum stream corridor width for biological conservation: Species richness and distribution along mid-order streams in Vermont, USA. Biological Conservation 71, 325-332. (100’ minimal width for species richness in streams).
Shallow Water Habitat
R.A. Fischer and J.C. Fischenich. 2000. Design Recommendations for Riparian Corridors and Vegetated Buffer Strips. US Army Engineer Research and Development Center pub# ERDC TN-EMRRP-SR-24
USACE 1991. Buffer Strips for Riparian Zone Management (A Literature Review): Prepared for the State of Vermont. New England Division, Corps of Engineers. Waltham, MA.
Kellie Merrell, Jeremy Deeds, and Mark Mitchell. March 14, 2013. Determining if Maine’s Mandatory Shoreline Zoning Standards are Effective at Protecting the Environment. A joint study conducted by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (100’ minimal vegetative width for aquatic habitat).
Nutrient Removal and Sediment Filtration
S.E Woodward and C.A. Rock. 1995. Control of residential stormwater by natural buffer strips. Lake and Reservoir Management 11, 37 -45. (50’ minimal width of vegetation for filtration).
Fishes and Aquatic Insects
Kellie Merrell, Jeremy Deeds, and Mark Mitchell. 14 March 2013. Determining if Maine’s Mandatory Shoreline Zoning Standards are Effective at Protecting the Environment. A joint study conducted by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (100’ minimal vegetative width for aquatic habitat).
Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. 2005. Riparian Buffers and Corridors Technical Papers. Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Waterbury, VT.
Vicki Chase, Laura Deming and Francesca Latawiec. 1995 revised 1997. Buffers for Wetlands and Surface Waters: A Guidebook for New Hampshire Municipalities. Audubon Society of New Hampshire.
A. Fischer and J.C. Fischenich. 2000. Design Recommendations for Riparian Corridors and Vegetated Buffer Strips. US Army Engineer Research and Development Center pub# ERDC TN-EMRRP-SR-24 (100’ minimal vegetative width for aquatic habitat).
Mammals Vicki Chase, Laura Deming and Francesca Latawiec. 1995 revised 1997. Buffers for Wetlands and Surface Waters: A Guidebook for New Hampshire Municipalities. Audubon Society of New Hampshire. (20’ minimal vegetative width for small mammals; 330’ for furbearers).
J. Tassone. 1991. Utility of hardwood leave strips for breeding birds in Virginia’s central Piedmont. M.S. thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Blacksburg, VA. (160’ minimal vegetative width for birds).
S. C. Spackman and J. W. Hughes. 1995. Assessment of minimum stream corridor width for biological conservation: Species richness and distribution along mid order streams in Vermont, USA. Biological Conservation 71, 325-332. (500’ width for birds).
Reptiles and Amphibians
R.D. Semlitsch and J. R. Bodie. 2003. Biological Criteria for Buffer Zones around wetlands and Riparian Habitat for Amphibians and Reptiles. Conservation Biology Vol. 17 No. 5 pp 1219-1228. (Minimal width of vegetation of 385’ for salamanders; 400’ for turtles; 550’ for snakes; 675’frogs).