Water recreation safety

Initiating local surface use zoning

Each year the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) receives a number of questions regarding the placement of restrictions on lakes and rivers. With over 800,000 boats registered in Minnesota, some conflicts can be expected in the years to come. This information is designed to address the most frequently asked questions regarding this process - called "water surface use management" (WSUM) or "water surface use zoning." The goal of surface use management is to enhance the recreational use, safety, and enjoyment of lakes and rivers and to preserve them as natural resources of the state.

How do we start?

All water surface use management starts at the local unit of government - town, city or county, depending upon where the lake or river is located. Any ordinances proposed by the local unit of government must have a hearing and be approved by the DNR before they can go into effect. To improve the process, any local unit of government that is contemplating restrictions should contact the DNR as soon as possible at the address or phone number listed below for a packet that will assist them in the completion of the required information before submission to the Department. The DNR can also provide assistance in finding technical information as well as in drafting ordinance language.

What steps do we follow?

There are a number of steps to follow when considering surface use restrictions - observation, planning, and monitoring the outcome are important. One of the things to consider is that there may already be a state law or rule on the books to handle a specific problem and no additional restrictions may be needed - you may want to check with the local DNR conservation officer or county sheriff's department first. If surface use zoning is the answer, the following should be considered when looking at any of the options listed below:

Important factors which influence what type of controls are selected depend upon: the type of water body (lake or river), size, depth and shape of a lake, current and future shoreland development, relationship to other water bodies, environmental factors, accident and safety data, and recreational use patterns. After these are considered, there are a number of options available to address the variables.

Available options

Time zoning
Used in conjunction with other zoning methods to define times, days of the week or periods during the year when restrictions are effective.


Travel directions arrow to use in signing surface waters.

Directions of travel
Useful for controlling conflict from high speed activities on a lake, where speed zones may also be established.


Sign to use for indicating motor types and sizes allowed on a lake.Motor type and size
Restrictions on boat type and size are found mostly on smaller lakes, especially where there has been minimal motorboat use on the lake and future development may be planned. It controls speed by controlling horsepower.


Speed limits
Useful for controlling watercraft speeds for safety or resource concerns. Requires more enforcement than other types of controls.

Speed limit buoys for use in signing surface waters.


Graphic depicting area zoning options.

Area zoning
Also used in conjunction with other zoning methods to identify specific restrictions a lake or river. As an example, speed restrictions may be in place (near marinas or in narrow channels). These areas are normally marked with buoys or signs placed by the local unit of government.


Other restrictions
Restrictions, such as type and size of watercraft and other surface uses (swimming, restrictions on motor vehicle use on the ice, etc.) are also possible. It is also possible to petition the DNR for a variance from any of the listed standards.


Effective zoning defines objectives clearly, inventories resources, identifies land uses, appraises political influences, and requires public participation. A DNR survey of boat owners found that:

With adequate knowledge and proper planning, zoning can be a powerful management tool for providing quality recreation, reducing conflicts among users, reducing the impact on natural resources and improving safety.

For more information on water surface use management contact:
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Boat and Water Safety Section
500 Lafayette Road
St. Paul, MN 55155-4046
tel. (651) 259-5400 or toll-free: 1-888-MINNDNR (646-6367)