Jefferson County judge rules boaters can't use flooded private property

A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge issued a ruling in a case involving provisions in the Wisconsin Constitution that guarantee public access to navigable waters, ordering the state Department of Natural Resources to develop new policies on boats crossing flooded land.

Associated Press

June 26, 2024 • Southeast Region

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Leafless deciduous trees line both shores of a river under a cloudy sky.

The Rock River flows past tree-lined shores in 2014. A Jefferson County judge issued a ruling on June 24, 2024, that finds the public's right to use flooded rivers, lakes and streams ends where the water normally stops. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

JEFFERSON, Wis. (AP) — The public’s right to use flooded rivers, lakes and streams ends where the water normally stops, a Wisconsin judge ruled June 24.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge Bennett Brantmeier’s decision limits the reach of the public trust doctrine, provisions in the state constitution that guarantee public access to navigable waters.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit Thomas Reiss of Ixonia filed in 2023. He argued in the filing that his land abuts the Rock River. He alleged that when the river floods airboat users take advantage of the higher water levels to trespass across his land.

He challenged state Department of Natural Resources policies that state the public trust doctrine grants access rights to any part of a navigable waterway as long as the person remains in the water. Reiss argued that interpretation was illegal and public access ends at the ordinary high-water mark, a point on the bank or shoreline where the water regularly stops. He contended that the DNR’s position has left law enforcement confused.

Online court records indicate Brantmeier found the DNR’s policy unlawful and invalid. He ordered the DNR to revoke that policy and issue proper guidance through the state’s formal administrative rule-making process.

DNR officials had no immediate comment.

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