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History of Dams in Wisconsin

The first dam built in Wisconsin was built in 1809 to provide power for a sawmill on the Fox River, DePere. Black River saw its first sawmill in 1819 and in 1831 one was built on the Wisconsin River. These early dams aided people in providing flowages for transporting goods and for powering lumber and grain mills.

The first state regulation of dams began with the Milldam Act, a part of the Wisconsin Territorial Laws of 1840, No. 48. The purpose of this act was to encourage the construction of millpowering dams, by permitting the flooding of the land of others without acquiring easements for millponds. These early dams provided for and encouraged settlement in Wisconsin.

In 1841 dams on navigable streams were required to obtain legislative permission as a part of the Wisconsin Territorial Laws of 1841, No. 9. This helped encourage economic development as well as protect the public interest in waterways.

The Milldam Act was repealed in 1849 (ch. 157), as the constitutionality of preventing compensation by flooded landowners was challenged at the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The impoundments created by dams were viewed as a public resource and therefore it was argued that private land, such as the land being flooded by these dams, could not be taken from its landowners for public use without compensation being given to the landowner.

In 1857 the Milldam Act was revived under Chapter 62, Laws of 1857, but was repealed and recreated in 1858. In a court case in 1860, it was stated by the court that the Milldam Act would be overruled if it were not for precedent and economic benefits and therefore the Milldam Act was constitutional.

In 1863 it was declared that navigable waterways are public highways. In the following years, the "sawlog" test was developed to determine navigability.

In 1909 the legislature decided they no longer had the time or expertise to issue permits for dams and that responsibility was given to state agencies.

For much of the early 1900s the Railroad Commission and then the Public Service Commission (PSC) had jurisdiction over dams. Laws changed over the years to address issues such as the rights of upstream and downstream landowners, the debate over navigable and nonnavigable rivers and public safety rights.

In 1967 the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was created and jurisdiction over dams was handed over from the PSC to the DNR.

In the early 1980s the DNR developed standards for design, construction and reconstruction of large dams, enacted warning sign and portages for dams rules for public safety. In 1991 procedures for implementation of dam maintenance, repair, modification or abandonment grant program were put into place.

The DNR currently deals with permitting for new dam construction, repairs, reconstruction, ownership transfers, water levels and abandonment. Many dams in the state have been in place since the late 1800s and a great deal of time must be invested in inspecting aging dams and making sure they comply with public safety requirements and environmental regulations.

Contact information
DNR Dam Safety
DNR Dam Safety Program, WT/3
101 S Webster St
PO Box 7921
Madison WI 53707–7921