Do you live on a lake or river? Do you know your environmental responsibilities?

by Mo Laidlaw
How to protect our lakes and rivers, our water, and the environment
Many people live on waterfront property, surrounded by nature. Some people have manicured lawns and open spaces. Lawns and retaining walls are not natural, although common in the suburbs, and cause environmental problems.
Regulations governing banks, shores and flood plains were adopted in 1987 after studies showed in the early 1980s that numerous watercourses in Québec were becoming degraded by construction, and water ecosystems were being threatened. The Quebec Ministry of Environment, (MEQ) and municipalities are responsible for enforcing the regulations which set out the responsibilities of those who live on lake shores and river banks.
The importance of vegetation
Trees and shrubs on the banks of lakes and rivers play an important role in the ecosystem. Plants are a natural defence against erosion of the banks and soil. They reduce the amount of sediment that is carried into the water and help keep the water cool, which is better for plants, fish and animals. The shoreline strip captures some rainfall and is a buffer zone against flooding. Vegetation on river banks acts as a filter to reduce water pollution, is a natural windbreak, and provides a natural-looking visual screen.
Maintaining a lawn is more work and provides less protection from erosion. Fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides applied to a lawn will run into the lake. Phosphate, from chemical fertilizers, sewage, manure, soaps and detergents, encourages excessive growth of algae and water plants, that removes oxygen from the water, and kills the fish and plants.
The banks of lakes and rivers are a habitat for animals and plants. There are 271 kinds of vertebrates and 182 species of plants on banks of lakes and rivers in Quebec, a remarkable biodiversity. Some of these are considered endangered.
Trees and shrubs are essential
Destruction of the natural vegetation on banks and construction of retaining walls, inevitably leads to slow death of a lake or river. The 1987 regulations aim to protect the shoreline, and a permit is required from the municipal inspector for work on river banks and lake shores that may modify the natural vegetation. We must not cut trees or shrubs in the 10 metre strip above the high water level. If the bank is steeper than 30% the protected shoreline strip is 15 metres wide. No construction of walls or buildings is allowed in this shoreline strip. Homes need to be set further back from the shoreline to allow a clear area around the house.
A boat ramp up to 5 metres wide may be allowed for launching small boats, if the slope is less than 30%. Stairs and footpaths should be narrow and adapted to the terrain, so they will usually follow a winding route. Limited pruning and trimming is allowed to provide a view. It is important to leave small shrubs and trees that don’t affect the view, particularly at the bottom of the slope. Don’t leave bare soil after cutting trees and bushes.
(Picture of erosion/run-off)
Docks for swimming and small boats
A municipal permit is required to construct a dock. A floating dock, or one built on piles or posts, is best as it allows the water to circulate naturally and can be easily removed when it gets dilapidated. If the dock is larger than 20 square metres you will also need a permit from MEQ.
Municipal permits
A municipal permit is also required for any of the following projects:
To construct a bridge or culvert.
To extract drinking water from lakes and rivers.
To construct a septic system (set back from the water).
To stabilize a bank that is eroding (the use of plants and shrubs is recommended).
MEQ permits
If you want to build a dam, or an artificial lake or fish pond you will need permission from MEQ as well as the municipal permit.
Not allowed
We must not dump garbage on properties, especially close to rivers and lakes. (But you can make compost from kitchen and garden waste for natural fertilizer).
We are not allowed to enlarge lots by adding material to a beach or the shoreline (as a general rule the river bed below the high water line is the property of the Québec government).
We are not allowed to dredge or modify the river bed.
We must not add sand or modify an existing beach.
We must not build on a flood plain (land that is under water during seasonal high water at least once in 20 years).
Rules for farmers and wood cutters
Watercourses in agricultural land have been subject to the regulations since 1991. The minimum protected area for a year-round watercourse (not a ditch) on agricultural land is a three metre band on both sides.
Where a wood lot is being cut, a wooded strip 20 metres wide must be kept on the banks of watercourses, and adjacent to ponds, marshes and lakes.
Useful resources
The municipal inspector can be very helpful and should be contacted before you carry out any work on the waterfront (or if you see what may be unauthorized work). Well illustrated MEQ brochures are available, mostly in French, from municipalities. If your municipality does not have an inspector or brochures, try your MRC.
Complete guidelines are given in: Protection des rives, du littoral et des plaines inondables, Guide des bonnes pratiques, Environnement et Faune, Québec, 1998. This costs $29.95 and is not available in English. Your municipal inspector has a copy that you can consult.
The regional directorate of MEQ is at: 98 rue Lois, Hull, J8Y 3R7.
Tel: 819-772-3434.

Appeared in Cottage Living, Fall 2003.