State of the Beach/State Reports/MI/Beach Ecology

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Michigan Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access77
Water Quality66
Beach Erosion7-
Erosion Response-6
Beach Fill4-
Shoreline Structures4 3
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas26
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.


In June of 2003, the Michigan Legislature passed 2003 PA 14 (Act 14), which exempted mowing and other limited beach maintenance activities from wetlands and Great Lakes bottomlands protection requirements through November 1, 2007. The law also established two pilot areas where Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) review and approval for limited vegetation removal on the shorelines of Grand Traverse Bay and Saginaw Bay would be expedited through a Director’s Letter. All authorizations issued under the Director's Letter expired June 6, 2006. In preparation for the expiration of the beach maintenance exemptions on November 1, 2007, the MDEQ worked with the Legislature, other state and federal agencies, and citizen groups to determine the best way to protect the ecological values of Great Lakes shorelands, while continuing to recognize landowner interests.

In addition to the above workgroup, the MDEQ relied on scientific information provided in The Effects of Coastal Wetland Fragmentation on Fish and Invertebrate Communities, a study that demonstrated a number of negative effects that may occur as a result of shoreland management activities in wetlands. Another important study is Report on the Impacts of Beach Maintenance and Removal of Vegetation under Act 14 of 2003 (March 2006). The Executive Summary of that report includes the following findings:

  • Clearing a swath of vegetation through a coastal marsh produces a fundamental change in the chemical and physical conditions in nearshore waters.
  • These changes in turn negatively impact the larval (very young, immature) forms of important game fish, reducing or eliminating habitat for species including yellow perch, smallmouth bass, and largemouth bass.
  • Adult fish netted adjacent to undisturbed areas were present in greater numbers and had higher diversity (numbers of species) than adjacent to “groomed” areas.
  • Invertebrate communities (insects, snails, and other small organisms), upon which fish depend for food and nutrient cycling, were reduced by vegetation removal and beach grooming. The number of individual organisms collected adjacent to undisturbed beaches was 29 times greater, on average, than adjacent to raked or cleared areas.
  • Impacts to fish and invertebrate habitat can extend more than 150 feet on either side of a cleared area, impacting marshes in front of adjacent property owners.
  • Beach raking, hand pulling of vegetation, disking, sand leveling, and (to an extent) repeated mowing were shown to rapidly destroy stands of ecologically important plants such as the bulrush, which is naturally deep-rooted and longlived, and which serves to anchor underlying sand and soil. Where vegetation was allowed to regrow, shallow-rooted annual plants and invasive species colonized cleared areas; bulrush plants did not readily regrow.
  • Qualitative observations indicate that the removal of vegetation increases the movement of sand and erosion of shoreline areas, but these impacts were not quantified under this study. Additional evaluation is needed.

These efforts resulted in the creation of a new General Permit category (GP) that allows property owners to request authorization to conduct certain shoreline management activities. GP categories are used by the MDEQ to identify proposed activities in wetlands and on Great Lakes bottomlands that may be processed and authorized using simplified procedures, as authorized by Section 30312 of Part 303, Wetlands Protection, and Section 32512a of Part 325, Great Lakes Submerged Lands, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, as amended. Activities that are authorized under a General Permit do not require an individual public notice, are subject to lower application fees, and are generally not subject to mitigation requirements. The new GP category covers bottomlands of the entire Great Lakes shoreline (including Lake St. Clair) in Michigan below the ordinary high water mark of the Great Lakes and above the water’s edge. It does not include or authorize activities below the water’s edge, or in critical dune areas, high risk erosion areas, locations with known threatened and endangered species or, in most cases, designated Environmental Areas.

Activities that may be authorized under the GP Category for Limited Great Lakes Shoreline Management Activities include:

  • Leveling and grooming of sand in areas free of vegetation. These activities are not authorized in non-sand areas, such as cobble or organic soil areas.
  • Construction of a temporary access walkway from the upland on the riparian property directly to the shoreline across swales with standing water, not exceeding six feet in bottom width and consisting of sand and pebbles obtained from the exposed, non-vegetated bottomlands, or from the upland on the riparian property.
  • Limited mowing of vegetation for a pathway, certain recreation areas, and in certain previously mowed areas of Saginaw Bay and Grand Traverse Bay.
  • Limited mowing for control of invasive or non-native species (such as Phragmites australis) in compliance with an invasive species control plan

The full text of the GP category is available online at Small scale shoreline management activities done by hand or with hand tools (e.g. raking, shoveling) do not require a permit. Mechanized activities and larger scale shoreline management activities require a permit. Shoreline management activities with impacts exceeding those that can be authorized under the General Permit will require an application for an Individual Permit.

Listed endangered animals and plants are protected by state and federal law. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) website has listings and information on Michigan's endangered and threatened animals and plants. Examples of some of the rare species most likely to be impacted by beach maintenance activities have been compiled. General known locations of endangered and threatened species are provided on the following informational map to assist property owners in identifying critical areas. If your property falls within these areas, you should first contact the appropriate DEQ District Office to provide a preliminary evaluation of the area. If there is uncertainty regarding the presence of rare species, a qualified biologist may need to survey the area before vegetation is removed or habitat is altered to ensure that rare species will not be harmed. If a biological survey is needed, DNR staff can help to determine what type of rare species may be present (e.g., plants, birds, reptiles, and amphibians), and what type of survey is appropriate. For information, contact the DNR's Wildlife Division, Natural Heritage Program, at 517-373-9418.

Please note that because state and federal surveys of threatened or endangered species have not been carried out on many private properties, rare species may also occur outside of mapped areas. The best way to ensure that no rare species will be harmed is to have the area checked by a knowledgeable biologist from a college, university, or private consulting firm. Ultimately, it remains the obligation of the property owner to ensure that no harm is done to threatened or endangered species that are listed under either state or federal law.

Environmental Areas have been formally designated along the Great Lakes shoreline to protect particularly high quality fish and wildlife habitat. There are 118 designated Environmental Areas along the Great Lakes coastline. Beach maintenance cannot be carried out in Environmental Areas under the new amendment.

Maps available on the DEQ's Website show shoreline areas that potentially contain threatened or endangered species. The areas are identified by the township, range, and section number in the following format: 07S08E25. The first number is the township (07South), the second number is the range (08East), and the final number is the section number (25). Only shoreline areas are represented on this map. Other areas that potentially contain threatened or endangered species are not shown.

Beach maintenance cannot be carried out in Critical Dune areas under the new amendment. Critical Dune areas protected by Part 353 represent the highest and most spectacular dunes extending along much of Lake Michigan's shoreline and the shores of Lake Superior, totaling about 80,000 acres in size. The legislature has found that Critical Dune areas of the state are unique, irreplaceable, and fragile resources that provide significant recreational, economic, scientific, geological, scenic, botanical, educational, agricultural, and ecological benefits to the people of Michigan. Information and maps are available on Michigan's Sand Dune Program website. Unfortunately, 2012 Public Act 297 Amending Part 353, Sand Dunes Protection & Management weakened rules protecting sand dunes in Michigan. The revisions to Part 353 changed several things regarding what needs a permit and what can legally be permitted under certain defined conditions:

  • Replacement utilities, under certain conditions, no longer require a permit, Section 35306(4).
  • In addition, under certain conditions, the DEQ may now issue permits for structures lakeward of the crest, Section 35304(3).
  • The DEQ may now issue a permit for a driveway on steep slopes, without a special exception (variance), if the proposed driveway meets the new criteria found in the revised law, Section 35311(a).
  • The DEQ may also issue permits for temporary construction access for restrictive sites, Section 35311(a)(2).
  • The DEQ now issues permits for accessibility measures, including those on steep slopes, without a special exception if they meet the specified conditions, Section 35311(b).

This article discusses some of the resultant controversy concerning Public Act 297.

A regular state permit from the DEQ is required for mowing in excess of what is allowed by the new amendment at a special permit application fee of $50. A new permit application form has been developed for this type of activity.

Other beach maintenance activities not specifically allowed by the recent amendment also require a regular state permit from the DEQ.

A bill repealing state restrictions on beach grooming, which moved through the House and Senate in May-June 2012, would allow home owners to mow vegetation on their lake front property in an area below the normal high water mark. More info.


Dwarf Lake Iris

Michigan's more than 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline represent some of the state's most valuable assets. These shores harbor a unique assemblage of natural ecosystems and associated plant and animal species. Ordovician and Silurian limestone and dolomite bedrock, deposited when most of Michigan was a shallow marine basin some 300 million to 500 million years ago, underlies the Straits area. The calcium-rich bedrock supports several rare plant and animal species, including dwarf lake iris, rare boreal land snails and Hine's emerald dragonfly.

The landforms associated with the shorelines of the Great Lakes create several unique habitats. The coastal features include open dunes, dune and swale complexes, and large marshes in protected bays of the Great Lakes. Coniferous forests, northern fens and alvar grasslands also occur here. Some of these habitats and associated plants and animals are regionally or globally rare, and several are found only on the Great Lakes shores.

Michigan does not currently have a system to monitor ecological indicators on the State’s dry sand beaches and dunes.

As part of the Great Lakes Restoration Project, Michigan's $7 million federal allocation leveraged over $15 million of habitat improvements, natural resource restoration and land acquisition. The Great Lakes Restoration Project report lists 23 projects funded by this program.

In addition, the DNR Website discusses Great Lakes Coastal Restoration Grants approved by State Administrative Board.

A great resource is Borne of the Wind: An Introduction to the Ecology of Michigan's Sand Dunes by Dennis A. Albert.

The MDEQ/Shorelands Website has Digital Maps of Environmental Areas. It should be noted that maps are available only for Arenac, Bay, Huron and Tuscola counties.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

A Property Owner's Guide to Wetland Protection in Michigan explains the shoreline management activities that may or may not require federal or state permits.

The Great Lakes Commission created the Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Consortium to develop a set of coastal wetland indicators. The work was completed in 2008 and published in a document, the Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands Monitoring Plan. The indicators described in this report, along with those being developed by the Great Lakes Environmental Indicators Project (GLEI), administered by the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, Minnesota, may contribute to a future beach habitat monitoring program in Michigan.

Also see "Monitoring and Evaluation of Coastal Habitats for Potential Restoration Activities" (4 separate studies).

A great resource document by the Dennis A. Albert is Between Land and Lake: Michigan’s Great Lakes Coastal Wetlands

Biological Inventory Reports for Conservation of Great Lakes Islands have been compiled.

The Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping Project (GLEAM) evaluates multiple stressors affecting the Great Lakes ecosystem. GLEAM merges spatial data layers representing all major categories of stressors to the Great Lakes, ranging from climate change and land-based pollution to invasive species, into a single map of cumulative stress. The synthesis of this information into a single map enhances our ability to manage and restore the Great Lakes ecosystem. The final map can be used to assess stressor impacts at locations with significant human benefits and to evaluate conservation and restoration opportunities.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Contact Info

Ronda Wuycheck
Coastal Management Program
Office of the Great Lakes
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

Tracy Collin
Great Lakes Coastal Wetland Ecologist
Land and Water Management Division

State of the Beach Report: Michigan
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