Our Water Header
  Home About Us Events Resources Partners      

Be a Responsible Waterfront Owner

What’s the issue?
How we change our landscape impacts water quality. When we remove natural vegetation to create open areas along rivers, lakes and streams, we change the way rainwater enters water bodies.  In addition to carrying pollutants with it, the rainwater travels overland too fast—charging into creeks and rivers, cutting away the banks and eroding the shoreline.

What is a Riparian Area?
A riparian area is the green area immediately adjacent to streams, rivers, and lakes. Riparian areas are identified by the presence of vegetation that requires large amounts of water.  The soil in a riparian area has varying textures that allow for occasional flooding or changing water levels.  The amount of water in the soil greatly determines what plants can grow where.

cross section

Graphic adapted from NRCS, Bozeman, MT by A. Miller, Black Dog Graphics.

Why are Riparian areas important?
Because riparian areas are next to streams/rivers or lakes, they can:

  • Recharge ground water
  • Reduce downstream flooding
  • Increase stream flows in dry weather
  • Trap sediment and pollutants
  • Cycle nutrients
  • Provide shade to keep water cool
  • Increase stream and bank stability
  • Provide habitat for fish and other wildlife

How can we better protect the land around
our lakes, rivers, and streams?

Adopt river friendly lawn care

Buy low, organic, or slow.
Use fertilizer that contains low or no phosphorus.  Unabsorbed phosphorus can wash off of lawns and farms and contribute to harmful algal growth in our lakes. Or, select an organic or slow-release fertilizer.  A slow-release fertilizer is one with at least half of the nitrogen in “water insoluble” form.  Slow-release fertilizers provide a steady supply of plant nutrients over an extended period of time.

Fertilize sparingly and caringly.
Regardless of the type, make sure fertilizers or pesticides are not applied too close to or directly into water, or on impervious areas where they can be easily washed away.  Keep fertilizer applications at least 20 feet away from the edge of lakes, streams, or storm drains.  Spot treat problem areas with pesticides instead of blanket treating your whole lawn.

Don’t guess, soil test.
A soil test will tell you what, if any, fertilizer is needed in your yard.  Contact your Michigan State University Extension county office for more information.

Mow better.
Leave grass clippings on your lawn – they make great fertilizer.  Leaving them will also save you bagging time!  Keep your grass cut high - set your lawnmower cutting height to 3” to hide clippings better, help the grass develop deeper root systems, and defend against weeds and droughts.  Don’t let grass clippings reach the water.  If you use chemicals on your lawn, this is like pouring them directly into nearby water!

Hire smart.
Select a lawn service that uses organic fertilizers or offers a slow-release nitrogen, low or no phosphorus option.  Request a soil test to ensure the right amount is applied.

Water wisely.
Lawns need about one inch of water per week.  Use a rain gauge and water only when necessary, instead of on a fixed schedule.

Stabilize stream banks

Plant roots.
Deep-rooted plants can stabilize sensitive slopes.  Establish vegetation on all bare areas.  Temporarily stabilize with mulch to minimize erosion.

Remove invasive plants.
Invasive plants should be removed and replaced with native vegetation.  Invasive plants do not always provide effective stabilization.

Build buffers.
Before your house was built, the river or stream on your property was surrounded by native plants, trees and shrubs that acted as natural filters and held soil in place.  A good buffer strip is wide (30 feet), continuous and dense with shorter plants nearer the water and taller plants and trees planted further away.  Use native, low maintenance plants like grasses, wildflowers, perennials, shrubs and trees for your buffer area.  Native plants are better able to tolerate Michigan’s climate, require less fertilizer and water, and are more disease resistant.  Use a wide variety of plants to help control pests and minimize the need for pesticides.



Consider your septic tank

Go low flow.
Excessive water use is the most common cause of septic failure, so reduce water used for bathing, laundry, and flushing the toilet.  Install low-volume toilets and low-flow showerheads.  Indentify and repair leaking pipes, sticking float valves in toilets, and dripping faucets to reduce water wastes.  Wash only full loads in your dishwasher and washing machine.

Avoid dumping.
Use toilet tissue that breaks up easily when wet to prevent clogging.  Keep from flushing non-biodegradable materials like facial tissue, diapers, tampons, plastic, or cooking fats and oils.  Never dispose of toxic chemicals by dumping them down your drains.  Stay away from using your garbage disposal unit.  Make compose out of vegetable wastes, coffee grounds, eggshells, and other compostable kitchen wastes.

Other options.
Use liquid laundry detergent because it is less likely to have fillers or carriers that may damage your system.  Keep your use of household chemicals and cleaners to a minimum to keep from harming the bacterial action in your tank.  Pump your septic tank regularly, usually once every one to two years.  Stay away from additives and “starters”.  Some may actually harm your system and contaminate groundwater.

Think about the drainfield too. 
Never allow solids or scum to leave the septic tank and enter the drainfield.  Keep automatic sprinklers away from the tank and drainfield and landscape over your septic system with dense grass cover and other shallow-rooted plants.  Avoid impermeable or compacted surfaces over the drainfield such as concrete, asphalt, plastic or compacted soil.  Discharge all sewage waste from the house into the septic tank.  Don’t run wastewater from laundry or saunas directly into the drainfield as the detergent or soap scum will quickly clog soil pores and cause failure.

Manage woody debris

Remove only the necessary
In-Stream woody debris creates and maintains habitat for fish and other aquatic creatures. Riparian woody debris maintains stream temperature by providing shade.







Top photo: Continued mowing and removal of deep-rooted vegetation will promote soil erosion.
Bottom photo: Example of eroding stream banks due to destabilization. (Photos taken in Carman Drain, a tributary to the Swartz Creek.)


Information for this section was gathered from the following resources and was adapted for the needs of the Genesee County Our Water Campaign.

  • Riparian Area Management: A Citizen’s Guide (Lake County Stormwater Management Commission)
  • Home*A*Syst: Managing Shoreline Property to Protect Water Quality (Michigan State University Extension)
  • Turf Tips for the Homeowner: Maintaining Waterfront Turf to Preserve Water Quality (Michigan State University Extension)
  • Planning for Green River Corridors: A Resource Guide for Maximizing Community Assets Related to Rivers (Oakland County Planning & Economic Development Services)
  • Have You Looked in Your Backyard Lately? A Guide to Help you Protect, Restore and Promote Local Waterways (UM-Flint, CAER)
  • Seven Simple Steps to Clean Water (UM-Flint, CAER)
  • Protecting our Waters: Understanding Shoreline BMPs (University of Minnesota Extension Services)
  • Managing Your Septic System (Michigan State University Extension)
  • Get Buff!  Shorelines need muscle to keep our water clean (Huron River Watershed Council)

Simple Steps to Keep Our Water Clean

Fertilize sparingly and caringly

Choose Earth Friendly Landscaping

Practice Good Car Care

Properly Dispose of Household Waste

Properly Dispose of Personal Care Products




  Contact Us

  Glossary of Terms

  Helpful Links









© 2005-2009 Genesee County Drain Commission
For More Information, please contact:
Genesee County Drain Commission