ESLA Drone Study

ESLA Drone Study Pays Big Rewards

ESLA contracted with Zero Gravity Aerial (ZGA) in the summer of 2021 for a drone imagery survey of our 42 miles of shorelines and near-shore waters. Video and still photography were recorded at different heights — lower elevation of the shorelines, and higher elevation from shoreline to the natural drop-offs. The goal was to learn more about our shorelines and near-shore areas with greater precision than past surveys done using kayaks or boats.

Preserving natural shorelines and shallows is arguably the most important factor in maintaining the high quality of our waters and the ecosystem it supports. ESLA’s board set goals to encourage waterfront property owners to improve their shorelines and, where possible, use the least harmful shoreline protection options. The footage also establishes a base to compare changes shown in future surveys. If ESLA had the technology a decade or more ago, we could easily compare the impact of shoreline development. In addition, it would show how golden-brown algae has proliferated.

The 2021 drone study showed one big positive: ESLA waterfront owners are using lake water to irrigate their lawns at a far higher rate than riparians on other northern Michigan lakes. ESLA encourages using lake water, instead of groundwater for irrigation because nutrients in lake water lessen or eliminate the need to add fertilizer to lawns. Fertilizer can wash into lakes during heavy rains and cause unwanted aquatic growth.  The survey also showed that even as ever larger homes are built on our shared shores each year, Elk and Skegemog lakes still have miles of natural shoreline, in both public and private ownership. A natural shoreline is one without rip rap (boulders) or seawalls. In 2021, Elk Lake had 199 parcels with natural shorelines. Some publicly owned or protected properties, especially on Skegemog Lake and the southern half of Elk Lake, stretch for hundreds of yards and even miles.

The drone footage also helped ESLA identify hotspots of unwanted invasive species — such as purple loosestrife, Eurasian water milfoil and yellow flag iris. The purple loosestrife observation has been used to guide a decision on the permit application to treat invasive species in past years. The footage also helped ESLA’s lake biologist look for Cladophora, or other detectable algal growth that warrant further investigation.

One important note: ESLA does not use the drone footage to grade, judge or pinpoint individual properties. Under our contract with Zero Gravity Aerial, the footage will not be shared with anyone outside ESLA’s science and environmental team. As Zero Gravity Aerial has continued conducting drone surveys of northern Michigan lakes, it has given us lake-to-lake data to compare. The drone footage, using 12 criteria, helps ESLA make recommendations on education programs to improve our shorelines. The table below shows how Elk and Skegemog lakes compare to other lakes.

NW Michigan Lake Comparisons table and Whole Lake Best Management Practice Score Comparisons.

What can you do to improve your shoreline?

A short survey can give you great feedback and information: Make sure to add ESLA as your lake association when taking the survey. ESLA’s Lake Biologist Samantha Ogle is working with ESLA Board Member and Master Gardener Deanna Seifried to help riparians with advice on how to make a healthier shoreline. Contact Samantha at: