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Wisconsin Water Law

Public Rights

Since 1999, MEA has used its legal expertise to protect public rights to Wisconsin’s waters, to advocate for strong water policies, and to ensure that government is held accountable for protecting groundwater and surface waters.

The Public Trust Doctrine

Wisconsin’s public trust doctrine requires state government to prevent the impairment of public waters and their uses. While these uses were once understood to include only access to public waters for navigation and commercial purposes, the public trust is now understood to encompass public rights to water quantity and quality, recreational uses and scenic beauty.

The Great Lakes Compact

The Great Lakes Compact was signed into law in 2008. The Compact is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the citizens of eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces who worked for years to craft an agreement to protect the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world. They house 20 percent of all freshwater on the surface of the planet, provide drinking water to 40 million people, create habitat for 3,500 species of plants and animals, and support a $4 billion sports fishing industry. 

A centerpiece of the Compact is its ban on diversions, reflecting the region’s determination to prohibit the transfer of Great Lakes water outside the basin unless a diversion request can meet narrowly defined exceptions outlined in the provisions and definitions of the Compact. As the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem, the Great Lakes are a national treasure. 

Our Work to Defend Public Rights

LEGAL ACTION

Upholding the Public Trust Doctrine in Sturgeon Bay

A proposed hotel development would have put Public Trust land in private hands and limited public access to Lake Michigan’s shoreline. With legal representation from MEA, the Friends of the Sturgeon Bay Public Waterfront successfully challenged the proposal.

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LEGAL ACTION

Monitoring the Implementation of the Great Lakes Compact in Racine

MEA monitors requests to divert water from the Great Lakes to ensure that all diversions meet the letter and spirit of the Great Lakes Compact.

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LEGAL ACTION

Defending the State’s Ability to Regulate High-Capacity Wells

MEA represented the Central Sands Water Action Coalition as a friend of the court in a case involving the DNR’s authority to consider the cumulative impact of high-capacity wells when it issues water-withdrawal permits. After years of litigation, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision in July 2021 affirming that authority.

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Resources For Defending Public Rights

MEA GUIDE

Public Trust Waters Guide

DNR VIDEO SERIES

Champions of the Public Trust