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Storm debris cleanup on waterways

This information is specific to DNR Waterways Program regulations and is designed to help answer questions regarding cleaning up debris in lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands.

  1. Artificial Debris/Garbage clean-up: Tornadoes and large storm events often deposit man-made materials (such as roofing and building debris)in waterways or wetlands. Landowners and concerned citizens often want to remove these materials, and they often want assurance that they are doing so in a way that complies with the waterway and wetland regulations. Here are some common scenarios.
    “There is a bunch of junk floating around in my lake, can I go out and remove it?”

    Yes, you can gather that material floating in a lake, put it in a boat, transport it to shore, and properly dispose of it. No DNR waterway permit is required.

    “Some junk has sunk to the bottom of the lake, can I go out and remove it from the bed of the lake by hand?”

    Yes, you can go out and remove that debris from the bed of the lake by hand. Gathering artificial debris by hand from the bed of the waterway does not require a permit. Pick it up, put it in a boat, take it to shore, and properly dispose of it. No DNR waterway permit is required.

    “Some really big debris has fallen into the lake, and I want to drive a backhoe out into the lake and pull the debris out.”

    Yes, that can also be done, but in non-emergency situations, the person should consult with the department first. Generally, operating motorized equipment on the bed of a waterway requires a DNR waterway permit. We share the goal of getting the junk out of the lake but discuss first with local staff to ensure compliance.

  2. Natural storm debris clean-up: Natural materials, such as trees and branches, are often deposited in unwanted locations due to large storm events. Removing natural debris is more complicated for a few reasons. In some cases, the landowner may not want the material to be removed, even if it is causing some problems for other waterway users. Someone usually owns the trees, and cutting and removing trees without the owner’s permission may lead to non-waterway violations such as timber theft or destruction of property. See the Paddling among Fish & Wildlife [PDF] brochure for more information.
    “There are some fallen trees across a stream, and I want to cut them up, can I do that?”

    You should consult with the property owner and make sure you have their permission. Any material you cut should be removed from the waterway and be properly disposed of in an upland location. Trees and other materials in waterways are important habitat and should remain in the system whenever possible.

    “A tree has washed downstream and is blocking a culvert or bridge, can I remove it?”

    Yes, go out and remove the debris.

    “I want to reposition and add some woody debris to the shoreline, do I need approval from the department before doing that?”

    Determine if a permit is required for your project at fish and wildlife habitat structures.

  3. Wetlands: Generally, a DNR wetland permit is not required for a landowner to remove debris from a wetland on their land. For example, a person may gather artificial or natural debris that has been deposited in a wetland without a permit from the department. The placement of fill material, such as road building, does require a permit.
    “I want to go into a wetland and haul out garbage that a tornado dumped there, do I need a permit?”

    A landowner does not need a DNR wetland permit to remove junk or debris from a wetland as long as the project does not include wetland fill, such as road building. Landowners should be aware that DNR Solid Waste rules may apply to disposal of certain kinds of "junk".

    “I want to haul in gravel and dirt to build a road through the wetland to get to the debris, do I need a permit?”

    Yes, you need a DNR wetland permit to build a road or deposit fill material in a wetland.

    “Do I need a permit to cut up trees in a wetland?”

    A landowner does not need a DNR wetland permit to cut up trees in a wetland as long as the project does not include any wetland fill, such as road building. 

    “I want to go into a wetland with a bulldozer and push debris around, do I need a permit?”

    Yes, operating a bulldozer in a wetland to push debris around will likely result in a discharge of fill material and will require a DNR wetland permit.

  4. Emergency situations, including health and public safety: The DNR Waterways Program defers to emergency and public safety while implementing the permit program. For example, it would be inappropriate to delay an emergency response while processing a permit. We ask that the appropriate Waterways staff person be consulted with as soon as reasonable when dealing with emergency situations. The department staff should use good judgment to waive or delay standard permitting requirements in emergency or similar situations.
  5. Other Agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and county zoning authorities, also regulate activities in waterways and wetlands. Please advise people to check with these agencies as appropriate.

More information