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Access abandonment for public waterways

Waterway protection

Anglers in boat enjoying a quiet morning
Public access is important for fishing and boating in Wisconsin.

Access to Wisconsin waterways is essential for many outdoor activities, including swimming, wading, fishing, boating and scenic viewing. The goal of the state of Wisconsin is to provide, maintain and improve access to navigable waters of the state. Improper abandonment of public waterway access, e.g. roads and rights-of-way, has increasingly become an issue of concern around the state. This access abandonment has the potential to impact those seeking to recreate on navigable waters.

Summary of abandonment steps

Father and daughter fishing
Enjoying a quiet day fishing.

In order to legally abandon or discontinue a roadway or public right-of-way which provides public access to a navigable waterway, towns and counties must follow a formal process that includes the submittal of a resolution or ordinance to the DNR, and may also include the need for public notice and a public hearing.

The department may grant the petition to abandon or discontinue an access site, if the town or county that seeks abandonment shows that abandonment will not decrease the quantity or quality of public access on the waterway. The surest way to meet this standard is for the county or town to replace the site being abandoned with a new access site that offers equivalent access to the waterway.

Further details on the abandonment process can be found on the links at the top of the page. There are also statutes and administrative rules that govern the process by which counties and towns may abandon public waterways access. The attached brochure summarizes that information.

fire trucklake

Dry hydrant accessing surface water for fire fighting.


Seasonal closures


The seasonal closure of public water access sites is not allowed under state law. It is considered to be the same as illegally abandoning the site permanently. Local officials wishing to address a water quality problem by seasonally closing their public water access sites should contact their DNR regional staff.

Case study - one town's success

The town of LaFayette in Chippewa County recently undertook a project to examine the condition of all the platted access points around Lake Wissota. Town officials accomplished their inventory with the help of a volunteer intern from the Chippewa Valley Technical College. Costs associated with waterway access inventories are eligible for cost-share reimbursement under the DNR's Surface Water (lake, river and aquatic invasive species) planning grant programs.

You can also read the follow-up report [PDF] that includes the intern's conclusions describing what he did, what worked well and what changes can be made for future efforts.

Other information on access abandonment

In an effort to share information about waterways access with their members, the Wisconsin Counties Association and Wisconsin Towns Association agreed to publish an article in the July 2005 edition of their respective magazines. The Wisconsin County Code Administrators also published a reprint of this article in their newsletter in September 2005.

Contact information
For information regarding access abandonment or allowable launch fees, contact your regional waterways access coordinator:
Regional contacts