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Limiting impact of recreation on water quality

Panorama of lake in the evening with rushes up front.

Keeping your lake or river healthy

Recreational opportunities are a primary reason people choose to live by or visit Minnesota lakes and rivers. The recreation demand is always increasing and that increases the potential for damage to water quality, particularly when it focuses on the waterfront. You can help minimize damage by practicing stewardship as you enjoy outdoor activities on your property.

Remembering to act with care, helps preserve water quality for fish and wildlife habitat as well as for our own recreational purposes.

Poor water quality can affect:

  • Recreation in and on the water.
  • Degrade fish and wildlife habitat.
  • Pose a health risk for water-contact recreation.
  • Threaten the safety of your drinking water supply.

There's a natural balance that has developed over time in the waterfront environment. Water, land, vegetation and wildlife are all closely linked. This delicate balance is easily disrupted when humans rearrange the shoreland area or when any of the components are destroyed.

Managing vegetation

The soil and rock in the area influences both the type and amount of natural vegetation and ground water. Natural vegetation is helpful because it: 

  • Physically slows runoff water and erosion.
  • Increases the amount of runoff water that is absorbed into the soil.
  • Takes up nutrients that are in runoff and ground water.
  • Provides food, spawning and shelter for fish, ducks and other life.
  • Protects your shoreline by damping wave action.
Lake cabin with natural shoreline.

Remember to:

  • Follow your site plan when developing your property. Including the installation of beaches, docks, accesses and buildings.

  • Minimize disturbance of aquatic vegetation.
    BEFORE altering or removing any aquatic vegetation, contact the MN Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Area Fisheries Supervisor to determine whether a permit is needed

  • Remove aquatic plants only where they seriously interfere with recreational use of water and then clear only the smallest possible area.

  • Never use chemicals for controlling aquatic plants without first obtaining a permit from the DNR. Although aquatic herbicides may be purchased without a permit, it's illegal to use them without a permit.

It's illegal to use aquatic herbicides without a permit.

Beaches and swimming

Swimming beaches

If a swimming beach is a priority, the best option is to purchase a lot that already has an established beach (or sandy shoreline). Creating a beach on some shorelines may be impossible. If you choose to develop a beach, select a site that doesn't require many changes to your shoreline.

FIRST contact your DNR area hydrologist for information and permits for beach development. 

A good beach site should have:

  • Gentle slope of less than 10:1 - 10 feet horizontal distance per each foot of vertical drop.

  • Firm bottom with less than 6 inches of muck or silt.

  • No springs or flowing water.

  • Minimal wave action. Remember: established aquatic vegetation dampens wave action on the shoreline.

  • Away from areas of significant fish or wildlife habitat, such as wild rice, bulrush and other protected vegetation.

Consider the impact

If you decide to develop a beach, consider the impact of alteration on the shore. You may be "gaining" a beach, but you will be losing habitat, runoff control and erosion control. For additional information, see Shoreline Alterations: Beach Blanket from the DNR.

A beach sand blanket may consist of washed sand ranging in grain size from very fine sand to "pea-gravel." If you add sand, use the largest available grain size (such as pea-gravel) to provide a more stable beach.

Consider using a swimming raft instead

Use of a swimming raft may be a good alternative to the development of a sand beach. Due to boating safety concerns, the county sheriff's department requires an easily obtainable permit for floating rafts.


Remember these important points when swimming in your lake or river:

  • Don't use soap or shampoo in the water.

  • Insist that swimmers leave the water to use the bathroom.

Lake with lily pads and shoreline with boats and docks.

Boating and fishing

Many recreational activities involve the use of motorized watercraft. There's personal watercraft, inboard and outboard motor boats for fishing and water-skiing. For more relaxed activities, there's pontoons and houseboats.

When boating, follow these best practices to minimize potential damage to lakes and rivers:

  • Never spill gas or oil (or other chemicals) in or near the water. Avoid even pouring these when over the water. Fuel the boat on the trailer whenever possible. Don’t “top-off” fuel tanks.

  • Install fuel storage tanks far away from the waterfront.

  • Properly store and dispose of all wastewater, both greywater (from sinks) and human waste while boating or fishing. Take special care when ice fishing or when on houseboats. Human waste from several ice houses can have a significant impact on the water quality in your lake or river.

  • Bury fish guts and parts on land well away from water. It’s illegal to deposit fish guts or parts into waters or on shores.

  • Slow down to reduce the wake when approaching shore (or boating in shallow areas). Wave action from the wake can damage the shoreline. Produce no wake minimizes shoreline erosion and prevents stirring up lake sediments.

  • Observe surface water use guidelines, including "no-wake" and low speed zones.

  • Don’t disturb aquatic plant beds.

  • Inspect boats and trailers to avoid moving non-native plants or animals from one water body to another. In Minnesota, it is illegal to transport exotic species.


Camping takes us away from our regular habits for cleanup, washing and waste disposal.

To minimize your impact on the environment:

  • Use the latrine whenever one is provided. If none is available, bury human waste a minimum of 100 feet from water's edge. Bacteria and viruses in human waste transmit disease.

  • Properly dispose of all garbage, including litter you find.

  • Never dispose of fish guts or other waste in the water, even if it's "biodegradable". This attracts pests and can add nutrients to the water.

  • Never wash in the lake or river. Wash dishes, hair, clothes and yourself at least 150 feet from the water's edge and always use biodegradable soap.

If using surface water for drinking:

  • Collect water from below the surface near the center of the lake.
  • Don't collect water from near-shore.
  • Running water is more likely to carry Giardia parasites. Avoid using river water for drinking. If you do, purify the water before drinking by boiling for 5 minutes.
  • Note: Filters and chemicals are not always effective in removing Giardia. For more information see  A Guide to Drinking Water Treatment and Sanitation for Backcountry & Travel Use by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Always follow the specific rules or guidelines established for the area where you're camping whether it's a wilderness area, state park or private campground.

Buildings near the shore

Local units of government have established standards that are based on statewide shoreland regulations for nearshore structures, such as boat houses, saunas and gazebos. In developing a site plan or planning a waterfront structure, property owners should:

  • First, contact the local zoning office to determine if the structure is permitted and what standards are required.

  • Minimize shoreland alteration and use adequate erosion control methods.

  • Design the structure to reduce its visibility from the water and adjacent property.

  • Locate boat houses where the water depth is sufficient to launch the boat and where aquatic plants need not be removed.

  • Store gasoline, oil and other potentially hazardous materials away from the water in a building with a solid floor. Store emergency clean-up materials along with these chemicals.

  • Drain greywater from saunas through the septic system or connect with sewer lines. This avoids adding soaps, oils and bacteria to your lake water.

  • Contact the DNR area hydrologist to obtain permit information BEFORE repairing any existing structures built over the water.

Dock with boat on a lake.

Docks, decks and accesses

Docks, boat ramps and decks offer ways to reach and enjoy the waterfront. If not properly constructed and maintained, they may cause water quality problems. For more information contact the DNR Area Hydrologist or county zoning office and follow these best practices:

  • Follow your site plan when installing a docking facility. Permanent docks (if allowed in your area) and seasonal docks must follow DNR guidelines.

  • Use naturally resistant wood (cedar, tamarack, redwood), metal or plastic instead of treated wood. Chemicals used in treated wood may cause water quality problems.

  • Construct all docks to allow free flow of water beneath them to prevent erosion and sedimentation along the shore.

  • Construct the smallest possible dock to meet your needs.

  • Never apply wood preservatives or paint to decks or docks while they are in or over the water.

  • Follow shoreland ordinances when building decks near the shoreline. Some setback requirements apply to decks to help protect water quality and minimize visual impact to other water users.

  • Minimize the amount of ground surface covered with decks and patios to minimize runoff and erosion.

  • Eliminate straight paths to the waterfront that cut directly up-and-down slopes or over bluffs. These types of paths decrease stability of the shoreline and increase erosion. Replace this path with a stairway or with an ‘S’ shape curved path to slow water runoff.

  • Consider using the public access instead of developing your own boat ramp to minimize waterfront disturbance.

Off-road vehicles: snowmobiles, mountain bikes and cars when ice fishing

The use of off-road vehicles (ATVs, bikes, snowmobiles, cars) can have a severe effect on lakes and rivers by increasing erosion, turbidity, and sedimentation. Follow these best practices to minimize the impact of your off-road recreation on water quality:

  • Stay on well-maintained trails.

  • Construct crossings over streams and wetlands to avoid damaging the bottom and banks. Contact the DNR Area Hydrologist for appropriate permits and regulations.

  • When entering or leaving an ice-covered water body, avoid wet or muddy areas, bluffs and steep banks. Don’t break down bluffs or banks.

  • During spring melt (and after lots of rain) stay away from sensitive areas and use appropriate surfaced trails and roads. The ground is very susceptible to rutting and erosion at these times.

  • Observe dates and time periods designed to regulate off-road recreation during muddy seasons.

  • Stay off thin ice. Not only is it potentially fatal to riders, but when motorized vehicles break through, petroleum products and battery acid can contaminate water.

Your investment and costs

Planning and maintaining a healthy waterfront is far less costly than trying to fix a disturbed system and benefits are far greater. Repairing shoreline damage is rarely successful and often impossible.

Permit fees

For some shoreline modification projects, you'll need a permit. Fees for permits vary. Contact the DNR Area Hydrologist for more information.

Fees for many recreational licenses help enhance Minnesota's water-based recreation through educational programs, research, fish stocking, trails and access development, and habitat protection.

Your investment in Minnesota's water resources will pay off in returns to you and future generations through enhanced recreation and improved wildlife habitat.

Regulations that apply

Minnesota DNR regulations

Any alteration of the lake/river bottom below the Ordinary High Water Level (OHWL) is subject to the regulatory jurisdiction of the DNR.

Local unit of government regulations

Any alteration of the shoreland above the OHWL is subject to the regulations of the local unit of government (county, township, or municipality).

To determine the Ordinary High Water Level (OHWL)

The OHWL is the highest water level that a lake has maintained for enough time to leave evidence on the landscape. Its often identified as where natural vegetation changes from aquatic to upland species. For streams, the OHWL is generally the top of the bank of the channel.

You should determine the location of the OHWL on your waterfront property.

  • Contact your DNR Area Hydrologist or county zoning officials for assistance.
  • Your DNR Area Fisheries Supervisor can assist you with questions regarding aquatic plant management methods and permits.

Lake associations and other restrictions

In some areas, concerned citizens or lake associations have informally established restrictions for recreational use of surface waters. Some of these, such as "no-wake" zones, are intended to help protect water quality. Others are more social and are designed to enhance community enjoyment, such as noise reduction and curfews. In some cases, county boards have enacted ordinances to formalize these guidelines into regulations. Check with your zoning officials or property owners association about whether any apply in your area.

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