My mower went into the lake; what HOAs need to know about shorelines

As I read the sad news of Florida’s expanding red tide and State of Emergency this summer, I wanted to write about what homeowners – and particularly homeowner associations (HOAs) - can do to limit nutrient and pollutant runoff. I believe that we can each take measures to be part of the Florida’s clean water solutions, even before local governments work to reverse the problem. Although we are limited in what we can do in regard to agricultural practices, both residential and municipal raingardens and planted shorelines are key to filtering the runoff that causes algal blooms and contaminates our waterways.

Many residents that live on the water, whether lakefront, or retention pond-front, do not wish to share their property with alligators and other Florida wildlife. So, they clear the marsh, replace it with sod and mow their grass right to the edge of the water. (The title of my article is inspired by a true story; I received a call one day from a gentleman who informed me that he would not be attending our meeting because he was mowing… and then he was swimming.)

The problem with removing natural shoreline plants, without replacing them, is two-fold.

First, by removing a naturally vegetated shoreline, homeowners destroy wildlife habitat and destabilize the bank, causing ongoing erosion problems on their property. This may not be noticeable at first, but because the soil substrates around a water body are not like the upland substrates, the soil around a water’s edge is not suitable for grass. Typically, the soils remain soggy because the underlying substrate is basically an extension of the bottom of the lake.

Second, fertilizer and herbicide will run off directly into water without a planted shoreline to trap and filter the runoff. For example, part of the reason for Lake Okeechobee’s algae bloom, which currently stretches across 90% of the lake, is nutrient-rich fertilizer from a number of upstream uses including agriculture and development. When lakes become rich in nitrogen (fertilizer), phosphates (soap), and nutrients from human and animal wastes (farm and septic system runoff), the lake becomes toxic to fish.

If you need an example closer to home, Orlando’s Lake Baldwin has been suffering from declining water quality in recent years. (Some people like to blame the dog park for this. In reality, most owners are conscientious enough to pick up after their pet while there.) Lake Baldwin has some of the most gorgeous green lawns in all of Central Florida. They’re not worth the damage they do. But it’s a vicious cycle that can be solved with education. With enough pressure from complaining  homeowners, landscape maintenance and lawn companies will ignore Orange County’s fertilizer ordinance, which states, “No fertilizer containing nitrogen or phosphorus may be applied in Orange County from June 1 through September 30,” and “fertilizers containing phosphorous are prohibited unless soil test shows deficiency.” The key is in educating homeowners, and the maintenance companies – large and small – that work in your neighborhood. When residents understand the true cost of ultra green lawns, they may be more willing to allow for a more natural look and not threaten to fire their landscapers.

What about in the case of sea walls? Yes, even the edge of a sea wall ought to be treated like shoreline. Consider the Isle of Catalina, a residential neighborhood in the City of Orlando. It has quite a few algae-blooming canals. The canals were dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers roughly seven decades ago. As you peer down any given seawall in that neighborhood, you can see big lumps of soil the result of aging walls that can no longer hold the soil back. If there were any doubt, there is usually a corresponding pit in the lawn above the sea wall, if the homeowner hasn’t filled it in with more soil. Plants along the seawall would prevent some of this siltation and erosion, but would also act as a filter that would prevent most of the algae problem if there were neighborhood buy-in. Also consider that the canals sit on the southwest edge of Clear Lake, a 357-acre lake stocked with striped bass, and one of the Florida Fish and Wildlife’s Fab Five. The HOA would do everyone, including the striped bass, a very big favor by hosting a seminar for its residents in how to create shoreline plantings of their taste along their seawall. It would filter runoff and ameliorate much of the current algae problem, and save money on costly chemical treatments.

Not only do fish have a hard time surviving in nutrient rich lakes, but so does the whole ecosystem once its habitat has been cleared and a link in the food chain is absent. Biodiversity is beneficial for its own sake, but without it, homeowners may find they’ve simply replaced their natural wildlife with Canadian geese. For a Canadian goose, lawn-to-water’s edge is a dream come true. They will reward you with goose poop. A planted edge is a goose deterrent, and it’s another good reason for HOAs, parks, and homeowners to install one.

Even for HOAs that have limited waterfront property, your neighborhood can still be part of the solution rather than the problem. Raingardens, like planted shorelines, prevent runoff from entering storm drains and our stormwater system. These swales trap water, and the plants can then filter particulates, allowing naturally cleaner waters into groundwater and storm drains. If your yard slopes to a drain in the street, you can improve water quality by planting a raingarden.

If you’re involved in your HOA, and you know that your neighborhood needs plantings, work with a local landscape architect to educate your residents. There have been case studies of Florida neighborhoods that have replaced their turf shorelines with planted shorelines, and the results show a dramatic increase in water quality because of it.

Install guidelines, and perhaps a section in your HOA budget, for replacing turf grass over time with native vegetation and/or helping your residents install attractive raingardens. The native Florida plants and shorelines can be very beautiful. If your neighborhood understands their purpose and function, these shorelines will be considered much more beautiful than a green lawn that goes right into the lake.