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Waterways Permitting Process

Waterway protection

When Do I Need a Waterways Permit?

DNR Jurisdiction Over Waterways

The DNR regulates activities that may impact navigable waters below the Ordinary High Water Mark. A navigable waterway is defined through case law as any waterway that has a defined bed and bank, and upon which it is possible to float a canoe or small watercraft on a recurring basis. The Ordinary High Water Mark is defined as the point on the bank or shore up to which the presence and action of the water is so continuous as to leave a distinct mark either by erosion, destruction of terrestrial vegetation or other easily recognized characteristic. 

Three-Tier Permitting System

The DNR implements a three-tier system of project authorization based on the expected level of environmental impact: exemptions, general permits and individual permits. If your project may impact a navigable waterway, it may be exempt if it meets eligibility criteria in one of the exemption checklists below. If it is not exempt, it may qualify for a General Permit if it meets the eligibility criteria in one of the General Permit checklists below. If it is not eligible for a General Permit, you must apply for an Individual Permit. 

Other Permitting May be Required

To determine if a local permit or a federal permit is required for your project, contact your city or county zoning authority [exit DNR] and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – St. Paul District Office [exit DNR].

State law requires a landowner with a project site that is 1 acre or larger in size to obtain a construction site stormwater permit. To submit a notice of intent, visit the DNR Stormwater Runoff Permitting page.

Start an Application

Please visit the DNR Water ePermitting System to start an application. Note that you will need a WAMS ID. Select the "Waterway and Wetland” tab on the left side of the page, and choose your general permit or individual permit activity.

All waterway permit applications require a fee under state law. See "Waterway Permit Fees" in our fee sheet [PDF].

Waterway Exemptions

Chapter 30, Wis. Stats. provides permit exemptions for the following activities in navigable waters. By law, most exemptions are not allowed in Areas of Special Natural Resource Interest (ASNRI). These areas include state natural areas, trout streams, outstanding or exceptional resource waters and other waters designated by the DNR as having significant scientific value.

  1. Determine Location. To determine if your project site is an ASNRI or public rights feature (PRF), visit the Surface Water Data Viewer, find the waterway where your project is being planned, and use the designated waters data layer. See Property Lookup for Designated Waters for instructions on how to use this mapping tool.
  2. Project Design. To determine your project needs and design, you may wish to consult professionals and contractors for ideas.
  3. Exemption Eligibility. Review the exemption checklist for your project type below to determine if your project qualifies for an exemption.
  4. Implementation. If you determine that your project is exempt from permit requirements, and you have all other necessary DNR/state, local, and federal permits, you can implement the project. 

Waterways Exempt Project Checklists:

Waterway General Permits

A variety of waterways projects have a general permit option available if your project meets specific size, design and technical requirements. The general permit process generally takes 30 days after the application has been submitted.

General Permit Process

  1. Review the appropriate General Permit Checklist below to determine if your project meets all the requirements.
  2. Use the DNR Water ePermitting System to begin and complete a General Permit application.
  3. The DNR has 30 days to review the application for completeness and notify the applicant. The DNR can request additional information one time within these 30 days, which would pause the 30-day period until all information requested is received.
  4. After the 30-days total review time, the DNR will communicate a permit decision to you.

General Permit Process Timeline [PDF]

Waterways General Permit Checklists:

Waterway Individual Permits

For a waterways project that does not offer an exemption or general permit option, or that does not meet the requirements of those options, you may submit an individual permit application to the DNR. The individual permit process takes longer and involves a public comment period and potentially a public hearing. The review process typically takes 105-135 days to complete.

Individual Permit Process

  1. Use the DNR Water ePermitting System to begin and complete an Individual Permit application.
  2. The DNR has 30 days to review the application for completeness and notify the applicant. The DNR can request additional information one time within these 30 days, which would pause the 30-day period until all information requested is received.
  3. The DNR has 45 days to provide a public comment period.
  4. If requested by the public or by the DNR, the DNR has 30 days to provide a public hearing.
  5. The DNR has 30 days from the end of the public comment period to communicate a decision to you about the permit application.