Request a Consultation
Offering Phone, Video, and In-Person Consultations 608-784-8310

Who Owns the Shoreline in Wisconsin?

With more than 15,000 lakes and 84,000 miles of rivers and streams, Wisconsin is one of the top five states with the most lakes in the United States. Wisconsin is known for the lakes and rivers that provide plenty of habitats for wildlife. In addition, Wisconsin lakes and rivers are excellent sources of recreation. From fishing to boating to water sports, thousands of people enjoy Wisconsin lakes and rivers. Many people own property on lakes or rivers but need to know who owns the shoreline in Wisconsin.

Navigable Waters in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Constitution states that all navigable waterways in the state are “common highways and forever free.” Therefore, these waterways are part of the Public Trust Doctrine. These waterways are held in public trust and cannot be bought or sold. They are to remain free to use for everyone. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is in charge of protecting public waterways.

A navigable waterway is any waterway with a defined bed and bank upon which it is possible to float a small watercraft. An ordinary high water mark (OHWM) is generally utilized to determine whether a waterway is navigable. As the owner of shoreline property, you will want to know the OHWM on your waterway and determine whether local zoning ordinances apply.

Riparian Rights

Many people own property that is on the shore of a lake or river in Wisconsin. While you may feel that the immediate shore belongs to you, that may not be the case. An owner of land that is on the shoreline is a “riparian owner.” A riparian owner has the right to use the property at the shoreline, along with reasonable rights to the water and access to the water. The landowner may use the land at the shoreline as long as their rights do not conflict with public rights. In situations where there is a conflict between public rights and riparian rights, public rights are primary and riparian rights are secondary.

Shoreline Property

State, federal, or local governmental agencies may need to utilize shoreline property for various needs. Projects may need to be completed, such as those needed for erosion control, dredging, pier erection, and more. The DNR has a permitting process in place for shoreline projects. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may require permits for projects that are to be completed along navigable waterways. Further, local city and county governments may need to designate certain areas as floodplains, and shoreline zoning rules typically apply.

Determining Jurisdiction

When a waterway is considered navigable, jurisdiction may be with the DNR or local government agencies. Whether you are a current shoreline land owner or are considering a purchase or sale of such property, it is best to understand the particular jurisdiction that handles the shoreline. You will want to know your riparian rights and gain knowledge of any upcoming projects. Before you build on your property or make any improvements, you must check to ensure that you are within the shoreline rights.

Riparian rights can be complex, and there are times when you may need the services of an experienced attorney. Contact our legal team at Moen Sheehan Meyer, Ltd. at (608) 784-8310 or online for a consultation.

Published February 20, 2023
Posted in
Contact MSM Online Bill Pay