The Value of Natural Shorelines

The Value of Natural Shorelines

Riparian land owners are not the only ones who love lakeshore living. Natural shorelines provide critical habitat for fish and wildlife. Twenty-four species of amphibians, 25 species of reptiles, 87 species of birds and 19 species of mammals are commonly associated with Michigan’s inland lakes (1). Furthermore, near-shore areas provide critical habitat for at least 65 species of fish native to Michigan, 18 of which are identified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in the Michigan Wildlife Action Plan (2). A number of recent studies have found that natural shorelines help to sustain near-shore habitat essential to healthy fisheries in lakes (3,4,5).


In addition to critical habitat, shorelines provide numerous water quality benefits. By filtering stormwater, natural shorelines can help trap a variety of pollutants including fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste, and petroleum products. Further, the extensive root systems found in a natural shoreline greatly reduce shoreline erosion.


In a report entitled Conservation Guidelines for Michigan Lakes and Associated Natural Resources, O’Neal and Soulliere (1) noted:


Construction of buildings, seawalls and lawns along lakeshores removes natural vegetation that mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish require. Septic tanks and lawn fertilizers leach nutrients into the lake, having the same effects on water quality as agricultural fertilizers. Wetlands are often cleared and drained for buildings. Many Michigan lakes presently have little, if any, naturally sloped or vegetated shoreline remaining.


In the first-ever nationwide assessment of lakes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency evaluated several stressors of lakes. Of the factors evaluated, lack of shoreline vegetation was the biggest problem facing the nation’s lakes. In fact, lakes with poor shoreline habitat were three times more likely to have diminished plankton populations (6).

Creating a Natural Shoreline


Shorelines that have been altered by the removal of natural vegetation, the placement of fill material or “hardened” structures such as sea walls are sometimes referred to as “disturbed shorelines.” Hardened structures are typically added by homeowners as a response to excessive erosion. Often, the need for these structures can be reduced by reverting the disturbed shorelines back to a natural condition.


Natural shorelines can be restored through "bioengineering" or natural shoreline landscaping. These practices involve the use of live plants and natural structure. When selecting plant materials, it is important to use native, locally-grown plants to ensure successful establishment without the introduction of invasive species. Given the importance of natural shoreline, maintaining and protecting undisturbed natural shoreline should be a priority for every waterfront property owner. However, in areas where the shoreline has already been altered, how does one create natural shoreline? What resources are required? What methods work best? What are the costs? Are permits involved?


To help address these questions and to assist landowners who would like to re-establish natural shorelines, the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership was established in 2008. The Partnership is supporting a number of initiatives that promote natural shorelines. The Partnership administers a Natural Shorelines Training and Certification Program, maintains a listing of natural shoreline professionals, and a listing of suggested native plants for use at the water’s edge. To find out more about the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership visit


Minor Project Category for Bioengineering Practices


Most shoreline alteration work requires a permit from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). DEQ has an expedited permitting process when natural landscaping or bioengineering practices are used. These criteria can be found here.




  1. O’Neal, R.P. and G.J. Soulliere. 2006. Conservation Guidelines for Michigan Lakes and Associated Natural Resources. Michigan Department of Natural Resources – Fisheries Division, Special Report 38.

  2. Eagle, A.C., E.M. Hay-Chmielewski, K.T. Cleveland, A.L. Derosier, M.E. Herbert, and R.A. Rustem, eds. 2005. Michigan’s Wildlife Action Plan. Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Lansing, Mich. 1592 pp.

  3. Schindler, D.E., S.I. Geib and M.R. Williams. 2000. Patterns of fish growth along a residential development gradient in north temperate lakes. Ecosystems 3:229-237.

  4. Merrell, K., E.A. Howe, and S. Warren. 2009. Examining shorelines, littorally. LakeLine, 29(1): p. 8-13.

  5. Francis, T.B. 2009. Urbanization vs. natural habitat. Lakeline. 29(1): p. 14-17.

  6. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. April 2010. National Lakes Assessment: A Collaborative Survey of the Nation’s Lakes. EPA 841-R-09-001.