Water rights and public access

Reprinted from the Dead Lake Association Newsletter August 2012 



Here we go again. Some of Dead Lake’s laws started back in 533 A.D. How could that be, you ask? It’s because that’s when the Romans put into written law what the Egyptians had been practicing for who knows how long. The English adopted these laws in 1412 and because of that, sometime in the 1600’s, the 13 colonies adopted these same laws. And finally, Minnesota, in 1857, included these laws in the Minnesota Constitution. 

These “laws” I’m talking about relate to water rights and public access. So it turns out Minnesota riparian rights, defined as property rights arising from owning property abutting water, are based on a long tradition, going back at least 1500 years. As such, a riparian landowner has the right to open water. This access is not a free pass for the public, though. On the other hand, public access is available through government property, though it may only be available on foot.  State, county, township and cities may have property riparian rights. That means you and I have access rights, but the particular governing power can impose restrictions, like a city park may have restricted hours of use, or a township or DNR may limit maximum horse power use, or prohibit camping, fireworks, campfires, drinking, etc. 

The most recent set of rules, regarding public access to water, is the result of attempts by the government to prevent transferring of invasive species from contaminated waters to other lakes. These rules, in case you haven’t heard, are now being enforced with stiff fines. You have to remove the boat drain plug(s), and clean all vegetation off of the boat, trailer, and motor before leaving the boat access. You also must drain all boat live wells and drain all water from bait containers and replace it with known clean water. My own question, like most other sportsmen, is how can you comply 100% with this rule? For instance, how can you get every drop of water or every trace of weeds or seeds out of or off of your boat and motor? And every minnow will have some trace of water in it. No, I’m not complaining, in fact I firmly believe everyone should do the best he can to comply with the law before leaving a launch site. 

Moving on to riparian rights, I’ve heard that any road that has its “road right of way” touching a body of water is also a public access. Be careful here, though. It may be illegal to park there and parking in the ditch could be illegal too, because private property actually goes to the center of the road in many areas. 

Now’s maybe a good time to debunk a myth that many people, me included, believed in. A dock that goes out from private land does not become a “public use” piece of equipment. It is private property and is protected the same as any other private property.

Credits: The Outdoor News (Steve McComas) and our local DNR office.