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Extension > Environment > Water Resources > Property owners > Shoreland maintenance > Limiting impact of recreation on water quality

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Limiting impact of recreation on water quality

Keeping you lake or river healthy

Recreational activities can adversely affect both water quality and the shoreline, particularly when they focus on the waterfront. You can minimize these adverse impacts by developing and practicing a stewardship attitude as you enjoy your shoreland property and participate in outdoor activities.

Recreational opportunities are a primary reason people choose to live by or visit Minnesota lakes and rivers, and the demand on our water resources is always increasing. That increasing demand also increases the potential for damage to water quality and shorelines.

Assessing and improving leisure-time activities will help preserve water quality for fish and wildlife habitat as well as for our own recreational purposes. Poor water quality can affect recreation in and on the water, degrade fish and wildlife habitat, pose a health risk for water-contact recreation, and threaten the safety of your drinking water supply.

Over time, the waterfront environment has developed a natural balance based on linkages between water, land, vegetation, and wildlife. This delicate equilibrium can be easily disrupted when humans move in and rearrange the shoreland area or when any of the components are destroyed.

Managing vegetation

Soil and rock in the shoreland area have characteristics that influence the type and amount of natural aquatic and upland vegetation and ground water in your area. Vegetation physically slows runoff, enhances infiltration of runoff, and takes up nutrients dissolved in runoff and ground water. Fish, ducks, and other life depend on vegetation for food, spawning, and shelter. In addition, aquatic vegetation protects your shoreline by damping wave action (see Figure 1). Remember to:

Beaches and swimming

If a swimming beach is a priority, try to purchase a lake or river lot that already has an established beach or sandy shoreline. If you choose to develop a beach, select a site that requires minimal alteration of your shoreline.

FIRST contact your DNR Area Hydrologist for information and appropriate permits for beach development. A good beach site should:

If you decide to develop a beach, consider the impact of alteration on the shore: you may be "gaining" a beach, but you will be losing habitat, runoff control, and erosion control. For additional information obtain a copy of the Beach Sand Blankets brochure from the DNR Division of Waters.

A beach sand blanket may consist of washed sand ranging in grain size from very fine sand to "pea-gravel." If you add sand, use the largest available grain size, e.g., pea-gravel, to provide a more stable beach. Use of a swimming raft may be a good alternative to the development of a sand beach. Due to boating safety concerns, the county sheriff's department requires an easily obtainable permit for floating rafts.

When swimming:

Boating and fishing

Many recreational activities involve the use of motorized watercraft, including personal watercraft, inboard and outboard motor boats for fishing or water-skiing, and houseboats. The following BMPs will help minimize potential damage to lakes and rivers:


Figure 1: Terrestrial vegetation minimizes runoff that can impair water quality and aquatic vegetation dampens wave action to help reduce shoreline erosion.


Camping is a recreational activity that takes us away from regular habits for cleanup, washing, and waste disposal. Some practices that will help minimize impact on the environment are listed below:

Remember to always follow the specific rules or guidelines established for the areas in which you are camping (e.g., wilderness areas, state parks, or private campgrounds).

Buildings near the shore

Local units of government have established standards that are based on statewide shoreland regulations for nearshore structures, such as boat houses, saunas, and gazebos. In developing a site plan or planning a waterfront structure, property owners should:

Docks, decks, and accesses

Docks, boat ramps, and decks offer ways to reach and enjoy the waterfront. If not properly constructed and maintained, they may cause water quality problems. For more information contact the DNR Area Hydrologist or county zoning office and follow these BMPs:

Off-road vehicles

The use of off-road vehicles, such as all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), mountain bikes, and snowmobiles, can have a severe effect on lakes and rivers by increasing erosion, turbidity, and sedimentation. Follow these BMPs to minimize the impact of your off-road recreation on water quality:

Your investment and costs

Planning and maintaining a healthy waterfront is far less costly than trying to fix a disturbed system and benefits are far greater. Repairing shoreline damage is rarely successful and often impossible. For some shoreline modification projects, you will need a permit. Fees for permits vary; contact the DNR Area Hydrologist for more information.

Fees for many recreational licenses help enhance Minnesota's water-based recreation through educational programs, research, fish stocking, trails and access development, and habitat protection.

Your investment in Minnesota's water resources will pay off in returns to you and future generations through enhanced recreation and improved wildlife habitat.

Regulations that apply

Any alteration of the lake/river bottom below the Ordinary High Water Level (OHWL) is subject to the regulatory jurisdiction of the DNR. Any alteration of the shoreland above the OHWL is subject to the regulations of the local unit of government (county, township, or municipality).

The OHWL is the highest water level that a lake has maintained for enough time to leave evidence on the landscape. It is often identified as where natural vegetation changes from aquatic to upland species. For streams, the OHWL is generally the top of the bank of the channel.


Figure 2: Cross section showing the ordinary high water level (OHWL) which is the legal boundary of the lakebed; in some cases, the OHWL is located many yards away from the open water.

You should determine the location of the OHWL on your waterfront property (Figure 2). Contact your DNR Area Hydrologist or county zoning officials for assistance. Your DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor can assist you with questions regarding aquatic plant management methods and permits.

In some areas, concerned citizens or lake associations have informally established restrictions for recreational use of surface waters. Some of these, such as "no-wake" zones, are intended to help protect water quality. Others are more social and are designed to enhance community enjoyment, such as noise reduction and curfews. In some cases, county boards have enacted ordinances to formalize these guidelines into regulations. Check with your zoning officials or property owners association about whether any apply in your area.

For more information

County offices:

Regional offices of MN State agencies:

Federal agencies:

Other resources (all available from the DNR):

Reviewed 2016

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