Web-based tools for shoreline assessments

Online mapping sites offer excellent information to help local officials develop effective shoreline zoning regulations.

Inland lakes are a vital resource in Michigan, and many local governments seek to protect those shorelines through zoning restrictions. Learning what the situation is in your area – current risks, development patterns, and trends – is an excellent first step before writing specific regulations.

A previous article published by Michigan State University Extension in 2013 provides general information about shoreline assessments as a way to help develop practical, effective and enforceable local regulations. This article provides greater detail about free web-based tools that can help communities start an assessment process.

Google Earth is a virtual global map that includes satellite images, aerial photographs, pictures, maps and other information. It is available as a downloadable program, browser plug-in or mobile device app. Some Google Earth features are also built-in to the popular Google Maps website. Within Google Earth, users can zoom-in nearly to parcel level and evaluate shoreline buffers, setbacks and impervious surfaces. The desktop application also includes drawing tools to highlight areas and measure distances. One of the most useful features allows you to tilt images to give views as if in an airplane, including topography. Many people get hooked on Google Earth to “fly” through the Grand Canyon or explore Paris, but it can also be a valuable tool to get a feel for land features in local communities.

The Web Soils Survey is an online system developed by the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. It includes soil maps and data for nearly the entire United States. The type and slope of soils in a shoreline area is an important piece of information; for instance, water seeps into the ground more readily in sandy soils and is more likely to run off across heavy clay soils into surface water. In the Web Soil Survey, users first search for a location or zoom-in and mark an area of interest, and then can view mapped soil types drawn over color aerial photographs. The site generates a customized and very informative report about the identified area.

The Michigan Surface Water Information System (MiSWIMS) is an excellent, interactive map-based system that features information about Michigan’s surface water, including lakes. The site includes water quality assessment information for many lakes and streams, and watershed boundaries and area non-point source pollution grant projects. In addition to using maps to find lakes or streams of interest, the system includes a text search option, especially handy when using computers with a slow Internet connection.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources maintains an online database of inland lake maps that show lake depth contours, and is one of the few places where that information is available. Many of the maps were drawn quite a few years ago, between the 1930s and 1950s, but still can be useful to local officials.

Although online tools are a great way to start learning about lake shoreline characteristics, advice and assistance from professional planners and natural resources professionals is also important to refine and validate the information.

Regardless of what method is used, a good assessment is a pre-requisite for developing shoreline zoning regulations that are effective in Michigan communities.

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