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Natural solutions for lake protection

Ellie Lozano, 5, smells a flower as her grandmother Jacqui Benson brushes her hair back June 23 at Benson's Lake Minnesuing property. Benson and her husband Matt received a Healthy Lakes grant last year to add native plants to their shoreline property to control erosion. She said they love the native planting, which attracts butterflies and bees "like crazy." (Maria Lockwood / mlockwood@superiortelegram.com)

Lake Minnesuing residents Ernest and Tyra Newman reaped the perks of environmental stewardship during recent heavy rains and flooding in Douglas County.

Last year, they took advantage of the Healthy Lakes program to install a rain garden and place a seated timber along their driveway to divert rain into it. They saw a difference during the storm.

“Our driveway would’ve been washed out, our yard would have been washed out,” Ernest Newman said.

Instead, they watched the water run into the rain garden, where the native plants went to work.

“It allows it to have time to soak into the ground and filter out,” Newman said. “It works amazing.”

They weren’t alone. Peter and Marcy Pluwak also installed a rain garden on their Lake Minnesuing property last year.

“When we had all that rain last week, you could see it was soaking it up,” Peter Pluwak said.

Dan and Pamela Carlson added a native planting along their shoreline last year to help control runoff. It includes columbine, asters, brown-eyed susans, wild strawberry plants and even shrubs.

“We just had that big rain, and in that area we didn’t have any damage,” Dan Carlson said.

A total of 10 Healthy Lakes projects have been added to the Lake Minnesuing shoreline over the past two years, with three more slated for this year. Each was eligible for up to $1,000 in funding from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“They’re small projects,” said Jim Giffin, outgoing treasurer for the Lake Minnesuing Association. “Many of them can be done by the property owner themselves.”

Healthy Lakes projects are aimed at improving lake health and managing runoff. Since it launched in 2015, projects have been completed at 353 properties on 66 lakes in 24 different Wisconsin counties.

The results can be spectacular, according to Pamela Toshner, a lake and watershed protection specialist with the DNR.

“Some observations include green herons visiting a native planting immediately after planting for the first time ever, and showing up daily for several weeks; hummingbirds immediately visiting flowers; softshell turtles nesting in a native planting,” she said.

Funds come from a state tax on gas used for motorboats, Giffin said, and the process is competitive.

“If we don’t say something, someone else is going to use it,” he said.

In addition to up to $1,000 per project, Healthy Lakes offers planning tools, information, guidance and connections to local resources.

“The property owner must contribute 25 percent of the costs, so there’s skin in the game,” Giffin said. “That cost can be in the form of human labor, instead of hiring somebody to do it.”

The Newmans spent about two weeks putting in their projects.

“We live on the lake; we want it to be as healthy as it can be,” Ernest Newman said.

And they got an unexpected perk. When designing the garden with Paul Hlina of Leaning Pine Native Plants, Tyra Newman asked for plants that would attract butterflies and bees.

“I have seen a lot of butterflies,” she said. “I’m happy about that.”

DNR staff visited the Healthy Lakes projects on Lake Minnesuing and nearly 30 on Lake Nebagamon last week.

“We were really pleased with the level of participation, personal stories, and that the projects withstood the recent floods,” Toshner said. “They are designed for smaller rain events so it’s quite remarkable how well they’ve functioned after major rain.”

Healthy Lakes grants are only accessible through qualified lake associations, sanitary districts, municipalities and tribal governments. Toshner said one of the keys to participation is having someone like Giffin, or Lake Nebagamon ambassadors Willard Kiefer, Phil Takkunen and Alan Yoshimoto, who can help guide property owners through the process.

“Lakes with people like Jim have more success getting projects completed,” she said.

If property owners want to improve the health of their lake without the red tape, they can visit the Healthy Lakes website, healthylakeswi.com. Information is available on five different projects to improve habitat and water quality -- fish sticks, native plantings, rain gardens, diversion and rock infiltration.

If every lakeshore owner did just one, Ernest Newman said, “It would be huge.”