We are all very fortunate to have one of the most amazing freshwater resources in the Midwest right in our back yard. Geneva Lake is the undisputed distinguishing feature of our area. And our quality of life and local economy depend on it.
Many of us are drawn to the lake, and intrigued by it. It is easy to get caught up in the natural beauty of the lake itself. And equally easy to overlook threats facing the lake that originate on land, sometimes miles away.
The Water Alliance for Preserving Geneva Lake was formed to raise awareness of the issues facing the lake. And promote collaboration among alliance members to create and execute strategies to address them.
One of these strategies is land protection. Whether a lakefront property, or a forest, wetland, business, home site or farm upstream, the lands in the watershed directly impact the lake’s health. Lands in the watershed often create threats to the lake itself. These threats include inappropriate or too dense development, poor land stewardship practices, or storm-water runoff that does not filter pollutants before it enters the lake.
The preservation of open space benefits the watershed and lake tremendously. Open lands, particularly those remaining in a natural state, provide pervious surfaces to filter storm water and often buffer strips of plants that slow runoff containing pollution and filter excessive nutrients. Native prairie, savanna, and forest vegetation also hold soil in place and prevent erosion and sediment deposition in our waterways and the lake. These open spaces serve as vital wildlife habitat, and protect biodiversity, as well.
Conversely, the loss of open space, due to development, strains and stresses the watershed. More runoff moving at higher velocities, containing higher levels of pollutants, nutrients, and sediment typically result. There are measures landowners can take to mitigate these issues. A visit by a volunteer from the Geneva Lake Conservancy as part of the Conservation@Home Program can provide solutions as well as Healthy Lakes funding to mitigate many of these storm water problems.
A land protection method that has been particularly impactful is conservation easements. Over 2,500 acres in Walworth County are currently protected by over 30 easements held and monitored by the Geneva Lake Conservancy, a nationally accredited land trust. On a national scale, conservation easements protect more than 47 million acres, or twice the land area of all of our national parks combined. But what exactly is a conservation easement?
It is essentially a legally binding agreement between a landowner and a qualified land trust that limits certain land uses or prevents certain kinds of development in perpetuity. Conservation easements protect land for future generations while allowing the owners to retain many property rights and continue to live on and use it. Restrictions created by the easement are chosen to protect specific conservation features (such as a streambank, or an oak savanna) associated with the property.
When a landowner enters into a conservation easement agreement, he or she decides the future permitted uses of the land and prohibits other uses that would be harmful to the conservation values of the property. Each easement is individually tailored to meet the conservation goals and needs of the landowner. A qualified land trust (such as the Geneva Lake Conservancy), then takes the responsibility of enforcing the easement in perpetuity. So the land gains a great deal of permanent protection, but remains in private ownership. The landowner may also qualify for significant income, estate, or property tax deductions.
Even though easements are placed on private land (typically not accessible to the public), there are significant benefits to the public. They are often designed to protect watersheds, natural areas, or scenic beauty. Or they may buffer areas adjacent to public lands or primary environmental corridors. There have been some easements coordinated in conjunction with land donations/purchases, by municipal organizations as parks that are protected with conservation easements, such as Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy and Town of Linn Park. This ensures that the municipality cannot subdivide or sell the land for development in the future.
Wherever you own land, what you do to that property will impact the watershed. If you subdivide it, use pesticides, pave driveways, apply fertilizers, wash pets boats or cars, or reduce pervious surfaces by building additional structures, this will negatively impact the lake. On the other hand, conservation easements, good land stewardship practices such as eliminating fertilizers and pesticides, and limiting the density of buildings on your property can all help keep Geneva Lake’s watershed or any other watershed healthy.
“Keeping It Blue” is written by Water Alliance for Preserving Geneva Lake members to inform and educate the public about water quality and other issues impacting Geneva Lake and how the public can help to address them. Comments and questions can be sent to email@example.com.
Chris Todd is a member of the Water Alliance for Preserving Geneva Lake. He is also advocacy chair for the Geneva Lake Conservancy’s board of directors.
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