Occupying Floodwaters

It seems a Wisconsin man owns some property near Ixonia, and that property has been flooded, gets flooded fairly frequently, by the Rock River against which the man’s property lies. He’s gotten fed up with the airboats that go running across his land, taking advantage of its temporarily flooded condition, and he’s filed suit in Wisconsin’s Jefferson County Circuit Court to put an end to the practice.

At the heart of the issue is the so-called public trust doctrine, which are provisions in the Wisconsin Constitution that guarantee public access to navigable waters generally defined as any waterway with a bank upon which someone can float a canoe or other small watercraft on a regular basis.
State Department of Natural Resources policies state that the doctrine grants access rights to any part of a navigable waterway as long as the person remains in the water.

At the heart of the man’s suit is this:

public access [the suit holds] ends at the ordinary high water mark, a point on the bank or shoreline where the water regularly stops, and that the DNR’s position has left law enforcement confused.
“DNR’s authority to implement and enforce the public trust doctrine is limited to navigable lakes, streams, sloughs, bayous and marsh outlets,” the lawsuit says. “Flooded yards do not fit into these categories and are not subject to DNR’s public trust jurisdiction.”

The man has the right of it, and a key phrase is that “regular basis” bit. There’s nothing regular at all about floods—that’s why they’re called floods and not rivers, or bayous, or swamps, or ponds or lakes. Another key phrase is that waterway with a bank bit. Floods don’t have banks; they’re floods because the water has overflowed the waterway’s banks.

Beyond that, there are basic private property rights. A man owns his private property, whether it’s in its normal state or flooded by a temporary overflow. There are no “navigable waters” in a flood sitting on private property, however easily someone else’s boat might float on the flood.

Wisconsin’s constitution is fairly explicit on the matter of private property. Art I, Sect 13:

Private property for public use. SECTION 13. The property of no person shall be taken for public use without just compensation therefor.

There is no clause or collection of clauses that authorizes the DNR’s navigable water policy. The DNR’s…policy…looks an awful lot like a taking without just compensation. Just a “shut up and deal with it” misinterpretation of the State’s constitution.

The cynicism of the DNR’s position regarding floods and navigability is demonstrated by this definition of navigable waterway in the DNR’s own policy regarding waterway jurisdiction:

A navigable waterway is defined through case law as any waterway that has a defined bed and bank, and upon which it is possible to float a canoe or small watercraft on a recurring basis.

This directly contradicts the DNR’s Public Trust Doctrine definition of navigable waterway on which it’s hanging its hat in defense in the law suit:

The Public Trust Doctrine applies to all navigable waters, which are defined as any waterway on which it is possible to float a canoe or small watercraft at some time during the year.

That internal-to-DNR contradiction by itself ought to be enough for summary judgment in the man’s favor and the striking of DNR’s navigable water policies. With that internal contradiction, DNR has demonstrated that it has no concept of navigable waters.

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