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About the River

Lower Wisconsin State Riverway

A decade of cooperative effort between citizens, environmental groups, politicians and the Department of Natural Resources ended successfully with the passage of the law establishing the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway (LWSR) and the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board. This law established the land management and acquisition standards for the riverway and became effective on Aug. 9, 1989.

The upper Wisconsin River has been called the hardest working river in the nation, a title well deserved. It contains 26 hydroelectric dams with 21 storage reservoirs, more than any other stretch of river in the United States. From its point of origin on the Wisconsin-Michigan border at Lac Vieux Desert, the river flows south, then west to its confluence with the Mississippi, a distance of 430 miles.

The Wisconsin River drains 12,280 square miles (7,859,200 acres), or about one third of the state. The dam at Prairie Du Sac is the farthest downstream and marks the upper end of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. The 92.3 miles of the LWSR are the longest free-flowing section of river anywhere in the Midwest. The river current ranges from 1 to 5 miles per hour and can be faster during high water periods. Locally heavy rains can cause the river to rise 2 to 3 feet overnight. Canoeists must always be cautious when using the river and choose campsites with this in mind.

Early Beginnings of the LWSR

The Wisconsin River flows unimpeded by any man-made structures for 92.3 miles from the dam at Prairie Du Sac downstream to its mouth at the Mississippi River. Approximately 95,000 acres of land on both sides of the river have been designated as the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. This area has a rich history of conservation practices and resource management, beginning in 1917 with the establishment of Wyalusing State Park (originally named Nelson Dewey State Park). In 1922, Tower Hill State Park was established near Spring Green. Two decades passed and the state's holdings increased again when the family of Louis A. Clas presented the Wisconsin Conservation Commission a gift of a 66-acre island near Sauk City to be used for a bird and game refuge and a place to relax while canoeing.

Efforts began in earnest following World War II, when game managers began to lease lands for public hunting and fishing. In 1960, money from the Federal Pittman-Robertson Program — tax moneys from the sale of sporting firearms and ammunition — assisted by providing 75% of the necessary funding. By 1980, over 22,000 acres were owned and another 7,000 were held under protective easement. Most of the work to manage the property was also provided by hunters, trappers and anglers using license revenues.