Lake Watch silt fences in action 0421 Lake u.jpg

Silt fences, straw and buffer zones help to keep silt from washing into the lake

Residential construction on Lake Martin is on a tear. According to John Coley at lakemartinvoice.com, “… In 2020 the inventory went down in waterfront lots more than in homes – there was a 76 percent decrease from the five-year average. Waterfront lot sales increased 146 percent in 2020 from the prior year. So it was a far more incredible increase in lot sales than home sales (a record breaker) in 2020, if you can believe that.”

This is a double-edged sword, with good and bad consequences. The good relates to jobs, increased tax revenues and increased demand for goods and services for our area’s economy. The bad includes increased boat traffic, increased wake-induced shoreline erosion (see Lake magazine September 2020) and increased potential for pollution of our Treasured Lake. 

The first two negative impacts are fairly obvious. I’ll elaborate on the third, increased pollution. Residential construction need not have a negative impact on the lake when done properly. There are regulations in place that, when properly followed, eliminate most of the negative effects. Pollution occurs when irresponsible actors do not follow the rules. An example was detailed in my Lake magazine article titled Build Responsibly (July 2019). The article also listed construction regulations that protect the lake from pollution. Note, these regulations are not optional – they are enforceable. 

Adverse impacts from lakeside construction consist primarily of increased runoff during significant rain events. The slopes around the shoreline tend to be somewhat steep, so when it rains, runoff containing red clay flows quickly into the lake. The amount of runoff is amplified when the land is stripped of trees, underbrush, leaf litter and humus. Due to the very fine particle size and electric charge of clay soil particles, clay takes a long time, typically weeks, to settle out of the water column. It is not only unsightly, turning the water a reddish-brown color, but also harmful to the aquatic environment. Clay turbidity reduces light penetration in the water, thus disrupting the natural growth of aquatic organisms that act to cycle nutrients and generate natural food for fish. It’s also not fun to swim and boat in and can be dangerous. The turbidity tends to hide obstacles, such as rocks, stumps and logs that lurk just below the water’s surface.

In the Build Responsibly article mentioned above, I listed seven bulleted procedures that a builder needs to follow to prevent polluted runoff from flushing into the lake. They include obtaining an ADEM permit, installing needed BMPs (best management practices, such as silt fencing), maintaining BMPs, etc. For lot owners and builders, information on permitting, proper BMP placement and maintenance, management of the construction site, required inspections and reporting is available on the ADEM Construction Stormwater webpage at adem.alabama.gov/programs/water/constructionstormwater.cnt. Scroll down the page to see Priority Construction Sites. All lots along the Lake Martin shoreline are Priority Construction Sites and have more stringent requirements and increased protective measures against nonpoint source pollution from construction sites. Thank you, ADEM.

Lakeside construction sites are typically on fairly steep clay soil slopes and require regular BMP maintenance, such as silt fence repairs, additional application of bare ground cover (straw), and potentially, a double, or even a triple silt fence to catch eroded soil (clay) from entering the lake. 

With thousands of construction projects popping up throughout the state, there is no way ADEM personnel can adequately monitor them all. Thus, it is up to us to be the eyes and ears of our lake. If you see irresponsible building practices along the lakeshore, typically a broken down silt fence with muddy water flowing into the lake, submit a report to ADEM. It is quick, easy and can be done anonymously. Note that typically what is seen in the aftermath of a heavy rain event is a blown-out silt fence with muddy residue over it, a muddy trail leading down to the lake, and muddy clay-stained water in the lake.

ADEM has a Complaints portal on its homepage (right side of the page) at adem.alabama.gov. The first thing to do when bad construction practices are seen polluting the lake is to take several digital pictures. Then, go to the ADEM Complaints portal and fill out the form; it’s straightforward and relatively painless. Be sure to upload the digital picture(s); they are truly worth a thousand words. ADEM personnel will come and inspect the site, determine if violations have occurred and, if so, will notify the property owner of the violations and the required remedies. Enforcement may involve warnings, fines and/or shutting down construction (if the builder refuses to fix the problem). 

In the example presented in the Build Responsibly article, the system worked. After an ADEM inspection, the builder promptly installed silt fencing between the construction site and the lake to catch eroding clay/dirt from entering the lake – a happy ending. Kudos to the responsible water watcher, to ADEM and to the builder for correcting the problem. 

Another major consideration during the design/build process is to incorporate low-impact development features into the residential design to minimize impervious surfaces (concrete, asphalt) and minimize runoff and nonpoint source pollution. That is a whole other topic that deserves a full article. Features to consider are lakeside buffer zones, rain barrels, rain gardens, pervious pavement (gravel, pervious pavers), to name a few. Take a look at this excellent resource produced by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for ideas and guidance so that a new home has minimal impact on the lake: Alabama Smart Yards available through ACES as an educational program (see facebook.com/AlabamaSmartYardsAlabamaExtension for details). For a pdf, go to the ACES store at store.aces.edu/ItemDetail.aspx?ProductID=13591. 

We’d love to have you join the Lake Watch crew so that we can have more eyes and ears looking out for our Treasured Lake. Come aboard at lakewatch.org

Eric Reutebuch is president of Lake Watch Lake Martin. Learn more at lakewatch.org.