The dock issue, dissected and explained

Not much can top the feeling of sitting on a dock to watch the sunset, feeling the cool breeze on your face, or jumping off the end of the dock on a hot day to be refreshed in the lake. We Minnesotans love our docks, and no one will take that away from us. But how much dock do we really need?

What is all this talk and controversy about docks and dock platforms? This issue has been at the forefront dock of lake issues this winter, as the DNR is sorting out dock regulations.

Today I will talk about how this all started, why dock platforms are an issue, what the potential impacts on lakes are, and the current standing of this issue.

First, just to be clear, these dock issues are only about the width of a dock and the size of a platform at the end of the dock, not about the presence of docks all together.

The DNR has regulated docks and other structures in public waters for several decades “with the intent of balancing protection of water resources with reasonable use,” including access for lakeshore owners.

In recent years, the DNR has witnessed an increased number of “dock platforms,” which are structures over public waters that exceed longstanding statewide rules that limit docks to a maximum of eight feet in width. Most of the nonconforming platforms in the state were found in the Brainerd lakes area and on Lake Minnetonka.

In 2007, the DNR issued a General Permit for dock platforms, temporarily allowing a platform up to 170 square feet (10.5 feet by 16 feet). This general permit was issued to allow the DNR time to have public meetings and gather public input about the issue before they made a decision about new regulations.

The DNR hosted five open houses in August 2007, including one in Detroit Lakes, to discuss the rules governing docks. The meetings offered an opportunity to share information and concerns on dock-related topics, including current statewide dock regulations, reasonable public access, water resources and habitat protection, and private occupation of public waters.

Then on January 23, 2008 the DNR issued a new 5-year general permit allowing platforms that do not exceed more than 120 square feet – or 170 square feet including the walkway, which can be no more than 5 feet wide.

In the general permit, Kent Lokkesmoe, DNR Waters Division director, said “All structures and shoreline modifications (including docks, platforms, boat lifts, canopies, sand blankets and aquatic plant removal) should be completely contained in an aquatic impact area. This is defined for this general permit as an area up to 50 feet wide along the shoreline or one-half the width of the lot, whichever is less, and extends waterward to a 4-foot water depth.”

The DNR was concerned that it was thought that they were not looking at the big picture. People would say, “Why are you concerned with platforms when my neighbor has three boat lifts, a canopy and all these boats.” The impact of all recreation will have will be contained in an aquatic impact area. Owners of nonconforming platforms also can apply for a special permit to retain their platforms, which run $150 to $1,000, depending on platform size. But owners need to have a good reason to be granted the permit.

The fact that dock sizes were even regulated was news to most people. But no matter what results from this issue in the future, it is still worthwhile to have this discussion on dock size so that people really think about it.

So what’s the harm in a couple large platforms out on the lake? Well, the problem has two main parts: balancing public and private rights and good resource stewardship and protection of aquatic habitat.

Once you’re out over a lake, you are on public property. So how much public property should one land owner be able to take up with their own dock, boats and lifts?

As aquatic habitat goes, the near-shore area is some of the most important habitat for spawning fish, aquatic insects and birds. Aquatic plants provide food and shelter for a large diversity of fish and animals. The DNR says that “fisheries research indicates that natural shores without docks have higher and more diverse fish populations than shores with docks”. Docks shade out important aquatic plants and boat and human traffic along the shoreline disturb fish and other animals. Also, when the lake bottom gets churned up by boats in shallow areas, the nutrients in the lake sediments get re-suspended, fueling algae growth.

Realistically, a couple docks aren’t going to make a big difference, but we need to consider the cumulative impact of 10.5 feet by 16 feet (170 square feet) platforms every 50-75 feet around the whole shoreline of a lake. If platform sizes aren’t limited somewhat, people will just keep getting bigger ones.

This issue all comes down to what is reasonable. How much dock do you really need to be able to enjoy the lake and park your boat? No one is saying you shouldn’t have a dock at all, just think about the size and make your decision with lake stewardship in mind. We want our lakes to still be enjoyable for our children and grandchildren in the future.

For more information on the dock issue and to read the general permit, visit: