Soft, white sand beaches are perhaps the most frequent vision new lakefront property owners have for their property upon purchase. While some inland lakes in Michigan certainly do have idealistic and sandy substrate, many more inland lakes have substrate ranging from rocky to any combination of clays and silt.

It has become common practice on many inland lakes to create beaches, manicured lakefront lawns and sandy swim areas. This article will discuss the activities that lakefront owners can do, with and without a permit, and points lakefront owners should consider from an ecological perspective when addressing their shorelines. As a note, this article addresses permitting from the state level; however, your municipality or your lake improvement association may have additional stipulations and requirements.

In its process for addressing beach improvement, Michigan draws a distinction for improvements above the waterline and improvements below the waterline. Michigan also draws a distinction between “wetland” and “non-wetland” shorelines. First, Michigan defines the inland lake “Ordinary High Water Mark” (“OHWM”) as the line between upland and bottomland that persists through successive changes in water levels, below which the presence and action of the water is so common or recurrent that the character of the land is marked distinctly from the upland and is apparent in the soil itself. In other words, the visual distinction between lake and shore one can typically see evidence of. Second, Michigan defines “wetlands” as “a land or water feature, commonly referred to as a bog, swamp, or marsh, inundated or saturated by water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances does support, hydric soils and a predominance of wetland vegetation or aquatic life.” Last, “bottomland” means “the land area of an inland lake or stream that lies below the ordinary high-water mark and that may or may not be covered by water.”

Assuming there are no wetlands involved (if one wants to alter a wetland, extensive permits and permissions are required) one may improve their beach and shoreline in a variety of ways without a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permit. One may reasonably sand beaches to the existing water’s edge. There are some additional requirements for above the OHWM sanding: the sand cannot shift the location of the OHWM and cannot change the contours of the shoreline. One cannot deposit sand into a wetland or floodplain. The sand must be clean sand and cannot contain any organic materials or other pollutants.

One may remove aquatic plants that are an aquatic nuisance (plants that live or propagate, or both, within the aquatic environment and that impair the use or enjoyment of the waters of the state, including the intermediate aquatic hosts for schistosomes that cause swimmer’s itch) if the removal is accomplished by hand-pulling without using a powered or mechanized tool and all plant fragments are removed from the water and properly disposed of on land above the OHWM. One may rake lake bottomlands, so long as the area raked is unvegetated before raking, predominantly composed of sand or pebbles and performed without using a powered or mechanized tool. There are many available improvements that do not require permitting.

If one desires a sandy swim area on a lake where sand is not the natural bottomland feature, a bottomlands fill permit is required from the DEQ. To qualify for the easiest permitting process, the swim area fill applicant should propose a swim fill area that is under eight hundred (800) feet and is limited to half the lot width, or a width of forty (40) feet, whichever is smaller.

In sum, the lakefront landowner has considerable discretion in how they modify their shoreline. The fact is, however, that well-manicured lawns and artificial sand beaches and swim fill areas can have an adverse environmental impact. Neat lawns accelerate rain runoff into the lake and carry fertilizers that might spike algae blooms. Removing a natural “buffer” between the lake and shore encourages geese to loiter on the shore and increases the rate of erosion. Consider implementing some environmental best practices into your planned improvements, such as leaving twenty five percent (25%) of the shoreline “wild” after improving the beach area or leaving a thirty-five foot (35’) to fifty foot (50’) “buffer” of natural vegetation along the portions of your shoreline you rarely use. Doing so will provide bird habitat, limit erosion and reduce noise from motorboats. It is certainly possible to both improve your beach area for enjoyment, while preserving the rest of your property for the future.