Shoreland Health Guide

Within this guide, you will more information about the importance of shorelands, how you can manage your shoreland, and shoreland science! You can toggle to any of the applicable sections via the buttons below.

Shoreland Science


Natural shorelands have three key areas that are crucial for maintaining a healthy lake: the littoral zone, the riparian zone, and the upland zone.

The littoral zone is the shallow water near the shore. It begins at the water’s edge and extends out to the area where sunlight no longer reaches the lake’s bottom. The riparian zone is the land from the water’s edge up to the area where dry land begins. It is the transition zone where terrestrial and aquatic environments meet. The upland zone is the higher and drier land that extends beyond the riparian area.
Although these zones have some distinct features, they are interconnected and gradually transition into each other almost seamlessly.

Maintaining the integrity and connectivity between these zones is important for lake health and the survival of the many species that contribute to and depend on a healthy lake environment.

More on Erosion Control

Shoreline erosion, more accurately referred to as shoreland erosion, is the process whereby wind, ice, water cooped with gravity all contribute to destabilizing the shoreland and displacing soil. The most common signs of erosion include:

  • Exposed soil
  • Rills and gullies (small channels in the soil carved by runoff downslope)
  • Slumping (loose shifting of land mass downslope)
  • Undercutting (when the toe of the slope has been displaced or "undercut" by waves yet the top of the slope remains)
  • Scouring (erosion along the face of a bank that leaves behind exposed soil and tree roots)
  • Turbidity (cloudiness in the water)
  • Receding shoreland
  • Exposed/slumping/leaning/fallen trees and roots

It is important to note that erosion is a natural and common process in and of itself; however, human influence has significantly exacerbated the rate of shoreland erosion over the years. Natural erosion often occurs at such a slow rate that it is barely noticeable - the natural rate of sediment accumulation in a lake due to erosion is around 1 mm/year. However, as shorelands become artificially hardened and/or where plants and their root systems are removed, the physical forces of water flows are increased, often leading to fast and noticeable effects, sometimes in unexpected areas. Some outcomes can include slope failures, which cause property damage and also threaten human life.

Typical human actions that can increase the rate of erosion around a lake include:

  • Removing natural vegetation from the shoreland and water
  • Hardening surfaces (e.g. installing pavement, patio stones, rip rap, concrete, etc.) that increase runoff instead of infiltration
  • Creating excessive boat wakes
  • Developing on land, exposing soils, trampling soil and vegetation, and
  • Hydrologically altering/hardening the shoreland (e.g. installing a retaining wall where natural slopes, soils and vegetation used to be) which result in powerful wave backwashes.

Some consequences of erosion on the lake ecosystem and human property include:

  • The loss of land and the creation of unsafe and unsightly areas
  • The loss of wildlife habitat including siltation of fish nurseries (covers fish spawning grounds)
  • Creation of sand bars on neighbouring properties which may require dock extensions
  • The alteration of the lake substrate (more silt and sand sedimentation)
  • Reduced water clarity due to turbidity and subsequent death of aquatic life
  • Increased water temperature from water running overland on hot surfaces and into the lake, as well as removing natural shade sources
  • Decreased water quality due to increased presence of heavy metals, chemicals and nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) in runoff (which increases algal blooms)
  • Increased stress on fish and wildlife due to habitat loss and degradation

Fortunately, there are many measures that can be taken to prevent erosion from happening in the first place:

  • Most importantly, if you already have a natural shoreland then you are lucky! Leaving the natural shoreland intact as much as possible is beneficial and easy to do. An untouched shoreland consisting of rocks, boulders, logs, and both dead and alive vegetation serves to hold the soil together and provide food and habitat for wildlife.
  • You can mitigate runoff by reducing hard surfaces (e.g. manicured lawns, pavement, stairs, patios, decks, etc.), and instead choosing permeable solutions such as raised staircases, interlocking brick driveways, and woodchip pathways. You can even create settling pools that allow water to drain into the soil, instead of flowing over the land and into the lake, and/or connected natural plant corridors that intercept overland flows. A great investment is a rain barrel which can be used to capture runoff from your roof, and in turn be used to water your garden with!
  • An easy win is to avoid constructing paths that run perpendicular to the slope and instead make paths that meander parallel or on an angle to the slope to keep water from gaining energy as it flows towards the lake - this will help slow runoff and erosion. A bonus to this solution is that meandering paths surrounded by natural vegetation also help to deter geese from your property!
  • Another choice to help reduce erosion and subsequent habitat disruption in riparian and littoral areas is to watch your wake when boating! Limiting your speed to 10 km/h within 30 m of the shore is recommended to reduce wave action created from boats.
  • Be mindful of erosion and siltation during construction by having contractors use the proper precautions (i.e. silt fences, hay bales, filter cloth) and avoid working when soils are loose and wet.

Gently sloping soft shorelands, particularly those covered in a diverse range of native plants, are more effective in shoreland stability and erosion control than artificial, hardened shorelands. Replacing native vegetation with wall-like structures (even small walls) is a costly, temporary, and unnecessary “fix” when it comes to protecting shoreland properties. The force of backwash from breaking waves against hardened surfaces leads to the resuspension of sediments in water and may direct wave energy, and therefore erosion, to neighbouring lands, harming adjacent habitats and biochemistry. Contrastingly, gently sloped, natural shorelands with established root systems actually dissipate wave energy remarkably effectively. In other words, artificial or hardened shorelands have little benefit to the landowner, the lake, or the lake community. Natural or softened shorelands, on the other hand, are inexpensive and nearly maintenance-free, saving the landowner money and valuable time that could be spent enjoying what a healthy lake has to offer.

Some natural and lake-friendly options for stabilizing a shoreland can include the following:

  • Vegetation: Plant a variety of aquatic and terrestrial plant species, including trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses and sedges throughout the littoral, riparian and upland areas. If needed, use biodegradable erosion control fabric, such as coir matting made from coconut husks or mulch, to stabilize the soil until the plants establish roots. Some plants have extensive roots systems. See our plant list for more suggestions.
  • Loose rock: Some rocks can be placed along a slope that is suffering from erosion, but rocks should be placed far enough apart to insert native plantings in the gaps. Willow stakings and other quick-to-establish and densely-rooted plants are ideal for these areas that may be frequented with water from wave action.
  • Bioengineering: Bundles of branches or root wads can be inserted into steeper banks to mitigate erosion, ideally in combination with planting native vegetation. However, more severe erosion sites will require a professional to assess the extent and severity of erosion, and to determine if more complex bioengineering techniques are needed.

Shoreland Management

Increased pressure on lakes has deteriorated water quality, which impacts not only homeowners but also wildlife that depends on healthy ecosystems. Responsible shoreland management results in healthier lakes which benefits recreational activities on lakes, property values and ecosystem functions. We can practice responsible shoreland management with sustainable choices such as nature-based solutions. Nature-based solutions such as vegetative shoreland buffers can mitigate the adverse effects of shoreland development.

You can practise responsible shoreland management by incorporating a vegetated shoreland buffer on your property.  The shoreland is made up of the littoral, riparian and upland zone, and it functions most effectively when all these zones have native vegetation. It is common to interpret littoral plants as “weeds, as we may have been taught that they are an inconvenience and nuisance for lake activities.  The negative societal perception of aquatic plants is detrimental to lake health because littoral plants are just as valuable to lakes, as trees are to forests.  Plants in the littoral and riparian zone provide shade and shelter for fish, insects, and other wildlife; all of which contribute to a healthy and well-functioning lake ecosystem.  Shoreland vegetation also acts as a filter for stormwater run-off by trapping nutrients and chemicals before they reach the lake.  Additionally, the strong root system of native plants absorbs nutrients and water, while also stabilizing the soil which prevents erosion.  Your shoreland will continue to reap more benefits for your lake community as your vegetative buffer grows in size.

Removing natural vegetation on the shorelands of lakes will destabilize lake ecosystems.  Shoreland alterations such as retention walls, sandy beaches and manicured lawns offer only short-term solutions and can lead to long-lasting negative impacts on your lake.  Altered shorelands often increase erosion, which will cause the banks to collapse or wash away due to wave action.  Further, more silt will enter the water, covering fish spawning beds and killing bottom dwelling aquatic life.  Altered shorelands will increase run-off into lakes such as chemicals and nutrients that would have otherwise been absorbed by shoreland plants.  The shoreland is often referred to as the ‘ribbon of life’ because of the important role this ecosystem has for many species. Unfortunately, shoreland development destroys this valuable habitat for fish and wildlife.  Altered shorelands are expensive to install and maintain, and are bound to collapse over time.  Fortunately, altered shorelands can be restored!

Responsible shoreland management is the result of homeowner choices and actions.  Shoreland renaturalization is less expensive than installing or maintaining altered shorelands (with the help of many community grants).  Shoreland vegetative buffers are easy to maintain because native plants have evolved to thrive in local climate conditions, soil types and with certain animals.  Remember, the cottage is a place to escape the chores of everyday life, and lawn maintenance doesn’t need to be on the ‘to-do’ list when native plants are involved. As a property owner, you can opt to plant native species, or create a ‘no-mow’ zone to allow your lawn to renaturalize.  We also recommend lightly pruning instead of completely removing trees when you’re seeking a better view of your lake.  Above all else, let nature do its thing!  Without human intervention, habitats will begin to develop on their own across all zones of your shoreland. As the homeowner, you can choose to leave rocks, fallen trees and logs, which will aid your shoreland through erosion control and result in more habitat for wildlife.

Most importantly, think about how you can live in harmony with your lake instead of fighting against it to suit your needs.  Once all lakefront homeowners acknowledge and practice this harmonious lifestyle, we can be confident that our lakes and future generations will want to thank us.

Responsible Play & Recreation

Shoreland alterations intended to “improve” recreational opportunities along the waterfront by removing natural features (vegetation, rocks, wood debris) and replacing them with sand or hardened shores are harmful to landowner’s properties, the lake, and lake ecosystems. These alterations can limit or eliminate the shoreland’s potential to function as a protective barrier against erosion and contaminants, and remove important habitat and food sources for the numerous species that depend on them. Careful considerations are therefore needed to balance human recreation with lake conservation. Fortunately, landowners can still reach their intended goals (such as creating better swimming and docking areas, and improving the view) in ways that benefit people, the lake, and the lake’s inhabitants through compromises that are easy and inexpensive.

Lawns consisting of short, shallow-rooted grasses are ideal for outdoor activities and access to the water, but they encourage runoff, erosion, flooding and the destruction of habitat around the lake. Open areas with fertilized lawn also attract geese whose guano contains a bacteria that can be harmful to humans, and high nitrates that can reduce oxygen availability in lakes. Landowners can enjoy open spaces while protecting the lake by establishing a “no mow zone” along the shore - preserving taller, native vegetation helps maintain the lake’s natural protective barrier, or buffer zone. A minimum of 30 feet is recommended for adequate filtration and habitat preservation, although 100 feet is better. In general, steeper shores or shores with finer soil particles typically require larger buffer zones for optimal functioning.

To connect upland recreational areas to the shoreline, it is best to establish one single path down to the shore which can be mulched or gravelled to keep the soil stable while still allowing for absorption of water and runoff. For upland areas, open lawn spaces can still be maintained for recreation and sports opportunities, but their impact can be reduced by splitting the lawn into sections with gardens and vegetation corridors planted in between. This can not only create a beautiful aesthetic to the property, but it will also allow for the pooling and infiltration of runoff into the soil in between impermeable lawn spaces.

Sand that is imported for sunbathing and wading areas is a temporary addition to the shoreland that can have long-term negative impacts on the lake environment. Sand along the shore ends up being carried out into the lake via wave action, causing siltation. When siltation occurs, the fine particles in the water can smother and suffocate fish eggs, bury mayflies in their burrows, and cover cracks, crevices, and vegetation that fish, frogs, and toads depend on to lay their eggs. To enjoy the sand and protect the lake, setting a beach back from the shoreline (especially one that is more like a sandbox and in the upland zone) can be a good compromise. Forgoing the sand altogether is even better! Maintaining the shoreland’s vegetative buffer also helps prevent soil from land erosion having the same effect on the littoral zone as sand. Finally, when it comes to “tidying-up” the shoreline and beach area, removing too much “wrack” (i.e. the narrow band of washed-up coarse woody debris, vegetation and dead organisms along a shoreline) can greatly reduce the biodiversity of aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Wrack is essential for providing food and organic carbon needed to support soils and sediment, and for feeding and sheltering microbes and invertebrates which support fish nurseries and other animals. Thus, try to avoid “cleaning” the shoreline as much as possible.

Fewer rocks, vegetation, and wood debris in the water can improve swimming and docking areas for people, but can be disastrous for the lakes’ inhabitants. Removing these natural features means removing essential oxygen sources, food resources, and habitats for many aquatic species. Clearing a designated area for swimming and safe boating while maintaining areas for aquatic vegetation and other features can be a good compromise. Simply adding a buoy, flag, or other indicator of these elements is even better because it can help swimmers and boaters navigate through the waters while keeping these areas intact. To limit aquatic plants which interfere with swimming opportunities, preventative measures are best. Limiting the amount of excess nutrients that enter the lake by monitoring what goes on the land (e.g., reducing or avoiding the use of fertilizers) and maintaining the shoreland’s natural buffer zone can help ensure there is a healthy balance of aquatic vegetation – enough for a healthy lake, but not too much to pester people or pollute the lake environment. This will also help prevent the establishment of invasive aquatic plants which can be the most cumbersome to swim with. Docks can also be used as a bridge to bypass aquatic vegetation in shallow waters. Floating and cantilever docks have the least impact on wildlife. To learn more about building or repairing docks that minimize harm, see the Dock Primer: A Cottager’s Guide to Waterfront Friendly Docks, produced by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Cottage Life.


The view of the lake can be improved while maintaining the natural shoreland. Pruning trees (instead of removing them) enhances sight lines while protecting and maintaining important habitat for birds, fish, and other wildlife. Trees also benefit the landowner by guarding against erosion and providing shade, privacy, and shelter from wind, dust, and noise. To learn how to properly and safely prune your shoreland trees, refer to Watershed Canada's Maintaining Your Natural Shoreline: Native Plant Care Guide.

Don't like the look of the vegetation along the shoreland? You can design your own shoreland garden with beautiful native plants to enhance your shoreland's aesthetics while improving or maintaining a functioning and flourishing buffer zone. Having an assortment of plants that attract birds and butterflies can create a beautiful, lively property for you and your family to enjoy, and a bountiful lake environment for wildlife to thrive. We also offer workshops and site visits to assist with your landscaping needs.

Additional Reading & Resources


The Beginner’s Guide to Shoreline Stewardship describes simple actions at the shoreline that can protect lake health for future generations.

The Land Between's own Design Your Own Shoreland Garden video provides background knowledge and start to finish guidelines


A Shoreline Owner’s Guide to Healthy Waterfronts, produced by the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations

A Shoreline Owner’s Guide to Lakeland Living, produced by the Lakeland Alliance

Caring For Shoreline Properties

Ecological Buffer Guideline Review, produced by Beacon Environmental Ltd. for Credit Valley Conservation

Healthy Shorelines in Muskoka

How to Engage Community in a Lake Plan, produced by Watersheds Canada

Kipp, C. & Callaway, S. (2003). On the Living Edge: Your Handbook for Waterfront Living, Rideau Valley Conservation Authority.

Lake Protection Workbook: A Self-Assessment Tool for Shoreline Property Owners, The Lake Links Planning Committee's Lake Protection Workbook helps property owners assess whether their land use and activities are promoting lake health. The workbook includes practical guides and recommendations for enhancing lake stewardship.

Love Your Lake: Erosion, produced by Canadian Wildlife Federation and Watersheds Canada

Management Recommendations for Washington's Priority Habitats, produced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Ontario’s Biodiversity Strategy, 2011: Renewing Our Commitment to Protecting What Sustains Us, produced by the Ontario Biodiversity Council

Planning for Our Shorelands, by Christopher Dennison at Watersheds Canada

Protecting your Property while promoting healthy shorelines

Responsible Shoreline Development 

Review and Analysis of Existing Approaches for Managing Shoreline Development on Inland Lakes, produced by Hutchinson Environmental Sciences Ltd.

Strayer, D., & Findlay, S. (2010). Ecology of freshwater shore zones. Aquatic Sciences, 72(2), 127–163.

Take the Plunge: A Guide to Stewardship of Ontario’s Waters, produced by the Federation of Ontario Cottagers’ Associations

The Shore Primer: A Cottager's Guide to a Healthy Waterfront, produced by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Association with Cottage Life

Valastin, P. (1999). Caring for Shoreline Properties: Changing the Way We Look at Owning Lakefront Property in Alberta.  Alberta Conservation Association.  Retrieved here.

Wetland and Stream Buffer Size Requirements - A Review, written by A. J. Castelle, A. W. Johnson, and C. Conolly

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