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how Wisconsin protects waterways by holding them in trust for everyone to enjoy.
the permits you need for your waterfront property projects.
about the permit process that protects public waters.
Waterway and wetland information line
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Waterway protection Why we regulate

Wisconsin Lakeshore Sunset

Wisconsin Lakeshore Sunset

How Water Regulations Work

If you enjoy fishing or boating on Wisconsin's lakes and streams, water regulations work for you. Maintaining water levels and flows, protecting habitat, and keeping streams free of obstructions help provide top quality water recreation.

If you farm, you might use Wisconsin's waterways for irrigation or drainage. Water regulations help make your water supply and drainage capacity more reliable while protecting the water rights of others.

If you own waterfront property, water regulations work for you. Regulating erosion control projects and dam or pier construction are a few of the programs which help people avoid dangers and unnecessary costs to themselves or other water users.

Why Water Regulations Work

Water regulations are needed because:

  • Conflicts often arise between the many different users of Wisconsin's waterways.
  • Water regulations are an alternative to going to court whenever we affect or are affected by our neighbors' water related activities.
  • Clear lakes and free-flowing streams are necessary for healthy fish, wildlife and human populations.

Wisconsin's public water regulations have been in place for decades. The program is founded on the Public Trust Doctrine, the body of law made by the Legislature and the courts that guides how DNR protects public rights in navigable waters. You can learn more about these rights and how Wisconsin citizens fought to secure them by viewing the video series "Champions of the Public Trust".

The job of water regulation programs is to protect public rights and interest in our waterways, and to allow projects that will not cause harm. Water regulation means the protection of your water rights.

Changing Protection for Changing Water Needs

Since 1787, when the Northwest Ordinance was adopted to govern the Wisconsin Territory, the State's navigable waterways have been considered public - for the use of all citizens. Article IX of Wisconsin's Constitution provides that navigable waters are held in trust, and "forever free."

When most Wisconsinites' nearest neighbors were wolves and deer, small dams or bridges on streams had little effect on other water users. As lumbering, milling and farming drew settlers to Wisconsin, the variety of water uses and the number of users grew. By the 20th century, recreational hunting, fishing, boating and swimming increased the variety of water needs.

Over the years, the courts and state legislature have developed laws and rules for protecting the rights of waterfront property owners, as well as public rights. This body of law is known as the Public Trust Doctrine. First the Railroad Commission, then the Public Service Commission, and finally the Department of Natural Resources have been charged with the duty to protect the public trust in our navigable waters.

Today, the state helps protect your water rights as well as public safety by ensuring adequate planning and design of projects that may affect public waters. This is done through permit and plan approval requirements for individual projects.

Wisconsin Statutes, Chapter 30, "Navigable Waters, Harbors and Navigation" [PDF exit DNR], and Chapter 31, "Regulation of Dams and Bridges in Navigable Waters" [PDF exit DNR] establish the permit programs.

Sharing Responsibility for Water Protection

The DNR has Water Management Specialists in Service Centers whose job is to help people understand their water rights, and to administer and enforce the laws which protect them. The Bureau of Watershed Management in Madison provides policy development and technical support for the field staff.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [exit DNR] may require permits for dams, dikes and other structures in federal navigable waters and for the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters and wetlands. The U.S. Coast Guard regulates the construction of bridges and causeways over federal navigable waters.

Local governments use floodplain and shoreland zoning to control development along lake shores and streams. Local zoning officials administer permit programs for buildings, land disturbance and other activities in shoreland and floodplain areas.

We are all responsible for water rights protection. You can protect water rights by following proper procedures and obtaining needed permits for activities in public waters. You can also report activities which may be in violation of laws so that damages can be avoided or corrected, and voice your opinions to state and local governments to help keep water rights protection up to date.

Permits or Approvals

Many activities affecting navigable waters require permits or approvals from Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Most of the physical alterations to navigable waters which require permits are listed at the left side of this page. If you are considering a project that involves any of the activities listed, or that may affect public waters, the following four items should be considered in your project planning:

  1. Determine if any regulations or permit requirements apply. You can obtain information or application materials either on this website, or by mail.
  2. Complete a permit application. You will generally need to submit the following:
    • description of activity including location and design,
    • purpose of activity,
    • plans showing location and design of the project, and
    • for certain projects, proof of ability to carry out the project.
  3. After receiving your application DNR staff will review your proposal, and may inspect the project site. You may be required to publish a notice in the local paper or otherwise notify affected people in the project area.
  4. If your project is approved, you will receive a formal permit or project approval. The permit will contain conditions that you must follow during the project's construction. Be sure you have obtained the necessary federal and local permits.
Last revised: Monday September 29 2014