Local government has an important role for water quality protection: Part 1

State and federal regulations help protect water resources but does not do the whole job. Local government has an important role also – often the proactive preventative function.

Photo credit: Kurt Schindler

Photo credit: Kurt Schindler

Local governments have a very important role to play in protection of surface water, ground water, drinking water and wetlands, often filling in the gaps in state and federal regulations. If local government does not do so with local zoning, those gaps may not be addressed. There are various state and federal laws designed to protect water quality. But relying only on state laws may not do a complete job.

“. . . state level [laws] are not enough; they tend to blunt but not stop degradation of the shore, and do not protect entire ecosystems, only resources found on particular parcels” according to Filling the Gaps: Environmental Protection Options for Local Governments (Katherine A. Ardizone et al., Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, 2003).

Local government can be preventative with zoning; a characteristic of zoning that is not always found in state statutes. Often, state laws focus on just one parcel or are in reaction to a problem that has already occurred. In addition, the book Filling the Gaps lists what aspects of environmental protection are not regulated by federal and state and gaps in those regulation – pointing out important roles for local government.

No one level of government can be effective on its own. It takes a cooperative effort. One way to visualize this is with local government in the center, and in a circle around local government are state and federal environmental regulation programs, watershed groups and landowners.

However, there are two caveats to local government involvement in the protection of water. First, is to be most effective one needs to address an issue at the same geography as the topic being addressed. That means local governments should coordinate and come together to protect a resource like water so the actions include the entire watershed or groundwater shed. Otherwise, one is doing only part of the job.

Second, in Michigan’s glacial geology, groundwater, surface water (lakes and streams), and wetlands are interconnected. That means water (and contaminants in that water) travels back and forth between all three: wetlands, surface and ground waters. So the local approach has to tackle all three. Otherwise, one is only doing part of the job.

Prevention of groundwater contamination through zoning often is done with site plan review standards in the zoning ordinance (from Michigan State University Extension) which requires secondary containment and restricting use of dry wells. These techniques were developed in the 1990s through the Groundwater Education in Michigan (GEM) program. Pilot communities were used to develop the site plan review standards which are now available for use everywhere in the state. Preventing drinking water/groundwater contamination is also part of Michigan Wellhead Protection program. This is a proactive effort to identify historic and present possible sources of contaminants within a public water well’s area so the community can monitor those issues. Also, a community uses zoning, fire inspections and other incentives, to prevent future contamination in the well’s area. These strategic activities are spelled out in a community’s wellhead protection plan.

Proactive protection of wetlands and surface water (lakes, rivers) is often an issue of how the shoreline is treated: setbacks, vegetation belts/buffers and density of development (parcel size and impervious surface). What size vegetation belt, and how big a setback, will be determined by doing homework first. It will depend on what the goal is, that is what the problem which one is trying to address is. It will depend on results of looking at primary information about the area lake size and shape (morphology), soil types (web soil survey), slopes, flood information and data from Michigan Surface Water Information Management System. This type of information can be obtained from places like regional planning agencies, county geographic information system (GIS) data, state agencies, soil conservation districts and watershed centers.

Standards used, or adopted into a zoning ordinance, need to be based on this homework, and follow defensible science based standards, and will depend on the goals. For example, the goal may be to protect water from nutrients and other runoff. Or goals may be to protect aesthetics of a resource, or to protect natural habitat. Different standards will result depending on what one is trying to accomplish.

One example of a set of standards was presented in a recent Shoreline Zoning workshops:

Minimum shoreland standards for lake with sewer system (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

Lake class

Lakeshore

Non-lakeshore

 

Lot width

Lot area

Structure setback

Shore Impact zone

Lot width

Lot area

Natural environmental

125 feet

40,000 square feet

150 feet

75 feet

125 feet

20,000 square feet

Recreational Development

75 feet

29,000 square feet

75 feet

37.5 feet

75 feet

15,000 square feet

General development

74 feet

15,000 square feet

50 feet

25 feet

75 feet

10,000 square feet

Minimum shoreland standards for lake with no sewer (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

Lake class

Lakeshore

Non-lakeshore

 

Lot width

Lot area

Structure setback

Shore Impact zone

Lot width

Lot area

Natural environmental

200 feet

80,000 square feet

150 feet

75 feet

200 feet

80,000 square feet

Recreational Development

150 feet

40,000 square feet

100 feet

50 feet

150 feet

45,000 square feet

General development

100 feet

20,000 square feet

75 feet

37.5 feet

150 feet

40,000 square feet

Another way to look at this is to explore various regulations based on if the purpose is water quality protection, aesthetic or habitat protection. The following table was developed from the GEM pilot project in Manistee County in 1995. It followed an intense amount of research done by the MSU Institute of Water Research looking at the county soils, lithology of water wells, groundwater movement and various sources of peered reviewed research. These numbers apply to lakes, rivers and wetlands.

 

Water quality protection from nutrients, runoff

Protection of areas of special concern: pristine rivers, fish habitat, special and unique environments.

Protection of habitat, environmental corridors

Buffer strip (with no or minimal use of fertilizer

5 to 10 feet

20 feet (Lakeland Report #12) (with filtered view)

33 to 400 feet (birds)

97 feet (avoid logging impacts)

Enough to retain river in full shade (fish)

Minimum parcel size: no public sewer

15,000 square feet

40,000 square feet

80,000 square feet

Minimum parcel size: both public water and sewer

12,000 square feet

29,000 square feet

40,000 square feet

Minimum parcel width at the waterfront

100 feet

100-300 feet

150-300 feet

Setback for buildings, and impervious surface

50 feet from surface water or wetland edge

50 feet from landward edge of buffer

50 feet from landward edge of buffer

Setback for nutrient and bacteria sources (drain field, manure storage, compost pile) (Prohibit use of dry well or equivalent)

100 feet from surface water or wetland edge

100 feet from surface water or wetland edge

100 feet from surface water or wetland edge

The point is what standards are used will depend on goals and objectives, and primary background data. This information would be included in a community’s master plan. The public participation part of adopting a master plan will also help determine what will be politically palatable and define the constraints that existing development may impose.

As a result, a more practical ideal may be along the lines of the following:

  • 50 foot building setback from the water’s edge
  • 100 foot septic and other nutrient source setback from the water’s edge
  • 35-50 foot buffer strip (UofM Biological Station or Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council) (combination of native trees and shrubs: No removal except dead, diseased, invasive; limited trimming and removal to have views; pesticide and fertilizer use restrictions)
  • 25 percent or less shoreline alteration
  • 10 percent impervious surface within 500 feet of shoreline (standard based on soils: 10-40 percent)

Other articles in this series: 

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