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River Science
Investigations of condition and response help protect river health.
River Management
Projects and funding are critical for managing rivers.
River Protection
Science-based regulation is essential for river protection work.
Contact information
For information on rivers, contact:
Lisa Helmuth
Water Quality Bureau

Managing Wisconsin’s rivers

Under state and federal law, DNR conducts water planning and master planning for natural areas and forests, implements regulations, and secures special designations to protect, maintain or restore river resources. Designation of Wild Rivers, State Riverways, and National Scenic Riverways are special protections extended to resources that provide unsurpassed beauty, ecological value, historical and biological diversity, and cultural and scientific enrichment. The St. Croix National Scenic Riverway [exit DNR] and the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway [exit DNR] (see also...) are examples of special waters where extra protections are in place to ensure the ecological integrity of riverine ecosystems. Regulations pertaining to acquisition and protection of resources are found in rules pertaining to the Knowles Stewardship Program. In addition, the highest quality streams and lakes of the state are identified as outstanding and exceptional resources. Conversely, those waters that do not meet minimum condition standards are identified on a list of impaired waters.

WI Ecological Landscapes

Ecological landcapes

The Department uses multi–disciplinary management for its riverine ecosystems. Research has identified unique landscapes defined by the land, water, abiotic elements, and biotic communities that inhabit these areas. Field teams integrate management opportunities based on ecological landscapes, which help define restoration opportunities based on the factors that inform and define these physical, biological, and ecological areas. [...Read More].

Wild rivers

Wild Rivers are established to protect natural streams, to attract out–of–state visitors, to assure the well–being of our tourist industry, and to preserve some rivers in a free flowing condition and protect them from development. The following rivers, or portions of rivers, are currently designated as Wild Rivers: Pike River – Marinette County; Pine–Popple Rivers – Florence and Forest Counties; Martin Hanson Wild River – a portion of the Brunsweiler River in Ashland County; Totagatic River – Bayfield, Burnett, Sawyer, and Washburn Counties [Learn More].

Big river management

Water programs have focused on large rivers for many years. Early wasteload allocation work conducted in the 1970s on the Wisconsin River, where severely depressed dissolved oxygen levels from excessive biological oxygen demand resulted in the state’s initial mass balance evaluations to reduce pollutant discharges based on the water’s ability to assimilate the pollutant. Subsequent examples include the large–scale mass balance analyses and ecosystem restoration planning to resolve severe contamination in the state’s five ’Areas of Concern’ (AOCs). The most recent example of integrated analyses include the creation of total maximum daily load analyses and large–scale restoration planning for large river basins including: the Central Wisconsin, the St. Croix River Basin, the Fox/Wolf Basin, the Milwaukee River Basin and the Rock River Basin. Perhaps the most obvious and high–profile example of the state’s Big River Management is the work conducted on the Mississippi River.

River grants

The purpose of the River Protection Grant Program is to assist local organizations and local units of government in protecting or improving rivers and natural river ecosystems. Cost sharing grant assistance is available for activities that will help to provide information on riverine ecosystems, improve river system assessment and planning, increase local understanding of the causes of river problems, and assist in implementing management activities that protect or restore river ecosystems.

Impaired waters list & TMDLs

Every two years, Wisconsin submits a list of waters considered impaired to EPA for review and approval. This list identifies which waters are considered impaired, why they are impaired, and which pollutants to address through management actions. In most cases, the pollutant is known and can be quantified through monitoring and modeling efforts. These activities are conducted when a total maximum daily load (TMDL) analysis is created. TMDL analyses are developed to quantify pollutant loads and to identify pollutant load reduction goals based on the capacity of the water to process or assimilate those loads. TMDLs are management plans that go through public hearings which influence how point and nonpoint source activities are managed in the watershed.

Environmental accountability projects

Alternatives for restoring impaired waters include Environmental Accountability Projects (EAPs), which are projects where ongoing management actions are anticipated to fully restore water quality standards. This management alternative is underway in a number of watersheds and waters.

Restored waters

Once waters have gone through the suite of management actions available to resource specialists at the federal, state, county, or other local government or restoratation group (or all of these), restored waters are removed from the impaired waters list. Special stories of restoration may be described on our "Featured Restorations" webpages.

Last revised: Tuesday May 02 2017