July 20, 2000Client Alert

Wisconsin's Inland Lakes and Navigable Waterways

Wisconsin's inland lakes and navigable waterways play a valuable role in the economy and quality of life of Wisconsin's residents and visitors to the state. However, these waters are also fragile ecosystems, readily degraded by erosion-borne sedimentation, contamination by agricultural and urban runoff, and the removal or alteration of shoreland habitats. Wisconsin's Navigable Waters Protection Law and Shoreland Management Program enlist the State's Public Trust responsibilities in the regulation of riparian land use practices in order to protect the economic, recreational, and ecological quality of these important water resources.

In 1966, and under the authority of the Public Trust Doctrine, the Wisconsin Legislature enacted the Navigable Waters Protection Law. The Navigable Waters Protection Law authorized the creation of a Shoreland Management Program designed to reduce construction borne erosion and eliminate threats to water quality, human health and riparian ecosystems through the regulation of waterfront land use activities. Shorelands afford access to navigable waterways, and their degradation and over-development can impair navigability and result in decreased water quality. Under the Shoreland Management Program, Section NR 115 of the Wisconsin Administrative Code, counties are required to zone all shorelands on navigable waterways in the counties' unincorporated areas. The Shoreland Management Program is a comprehensive regulatory program that addresses a range of land uses and activities, ranging from shoreland building setbacks to the placement of septic systems to the removal of shoreland vegetation.

Administration of the Shoreland Management Program is shared between the State, through the Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), and the county zoning offices. Counties must draft shoreland zoning ordinances to meet specified objectives, but are permitted to tailor their shoreland zoning ordinances to the particular needs of the waterway or community. The WDNR, in turn, must ensure that county zoning ordinances meet established requirements and are authorized to monitor the counties' administration and enforcement of their ordinances. Counties in rapidly developing portions of the State or which have a number ecologically sensitive inland lakes or waterways, can utilize the flexibility of the shoreland zoning ordinance drafting process classify lakes or waterways for development or protection.

The Navigable Waters Protection Law and the Shoreland Management Program establish an ambitious and innovative natural resources protection program which balances private land use with the protection of Wisconsin's important public water resources.

However, the effectiveness of the Shoreland Management Program depends upon the skills, knowledge and resources of its administrators, and the extent to which the regulated public is aware of the rights and responsibilities under the program. The WDNR, County Zoning Administrators, Outreach Specialists with the University of Wisconsin Extension, private lake associations, and the regulated public must work together to realize the potential of the Shoreland Management Program.

For more information about the Navigable Waters Protection Law, the Shoreland Management Program, the Public Trust Doctrine, or how these state laws and regulations affect you, contact Tracy K. Kuczenski at or one of our helpful environmental attorneys at Michael Best & Friedrich, LLP.

back to top