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. 

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:

  • accommodating all compatible uses, where feasible.
  • minimizing adverse impacts on natural resources.
  • minimizing conflicts between users to provide for maximum use, safety and enjoyment.
  • conforming to the standards set in law and rule.

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.


  • 24 hours a day
  • sunrise to sunset
  • 9am to 6pm
  • noon to 6pm
  • Memorial Weekend through Labor Day Weekend (either on all days or only on weekends and holidays) or all year.

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.


  • counter-clockwise direction of travel.

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.


  • no motors
  • electric motors
  • 10 hp allowed
  • 25 hp allowed

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.


  • slow/no wake (5mph)
  • 15 mph
  • 40 mph

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.


  • restrictions placed as needed
  • slow/no wake speeds at 100-150 feet from the shore

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:

  • boaters who request restrictions prefer speed, horsepower and boat type/size controls
  • perception of zoning needs vary by location and watercraft use on the lake or river
  • boaters in the Metro Area are more likely to ask for restrictions than those in Greater Minnesota

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.


Capt. Adam Block
DNR boating law administrator
[email protected]

Back to top