Shoreland management: lake, river and stream classifications

screenshot of minnesota lakeshores


Minnesota’s shoreland rules apply only to lakes and rivers assigned a shoreland classification by the Minnesota DNR. The shoreland classification determines what shoreland development standards apply along a lake or river. This page covers:

  • The purpose of shoreland classifications
  • Classification of public waters
  • Where to find the shoreland classification for a lake or river
  • Unclassified public waters
  • Reclassifications

Skip to the Shoreland Map Application below

Purpose of shoreland classifications

The purpose of shoreland classifications is to guide development along lakes and rivers consistent with their ability to withstand human development and recreational activity. Minnesota’s lakes and rivers are complex natural systems with varying sensitivity to human development and recreational activity. Minnesota’s shoreland rules establish shoreland classifications for lakes and rivers based on their sensitivity. Lakes and rivers that are more sensitive are assigned a more restrictive classification and those that are less sensitive are assigned a less restrictive classification.

The shoreland classification is used in local shoreland zoning ordinances to regulate the following development standards, which vary based on classification:

  • Lot area and width
  • Structure and septic system setbacks from the water
  • Size of the shore impact zone (SIZ), wherein vegetation and land alteration activity is limited

Classification of public waters

The DNR classified most public waters in the early 1970s. Distinct classifications for rivers and streams were developed for the 1989 shoreland rules update.

The Minnesota DNR is responsible for classifying all public waters (Minn. Rule 6120.2500 Subp. 13), which include:

  • Basins (lakes and Type 3, 4, and 5 wetlands) of:
    • 10 acres or more in a municipality (Includes township administering zoning)
    • 25 acres in an unincorporated area (counties)
  • Natural and altered watercourses (rivers and streams, including public ditches that are also public waters) draining more than two square miles.

Note that “public waters” and “protected waters” are interchangeable terms that are used in Minnesota and local government regulations.

Classification criteria

The criteria used to classify public waters includes the physical and biological characteristics of the waterbody, and the existing and planned development AT THE TIME OF ORIGINAL CLASSIFICATION. For a complete list of criteria, please see Minnesota Rule 6120.3000 Subp. 1.

Classification types

Minnesota Rule 6120.3000 Subpart 1a establishes three basin classifications and six watercourse classifications as summarized below:

Basins (lakes and wetlands)

Natural environment

Generally small, often shallow lakes with limited capacities for assimilating the impacts of development and recreational use. They often have adjacent lands with substantial constraints for development such as high water tables, exposed bedrock, and unsuitable soils. These lakes, particularly in rural areas, usually do not have much existing development or recreational use.

Recreational development

Generally medium-sized lakes of varying depths and shapes with a variety of landform, soil, and groundwater situations on the lands around them. They often are characterized by moderate levels of recreational use and existing development. Development consists mainly of seasonal and year-round residences and recreationally-oriented commercial uses. Many of these lakes have capacities for accommodating additional development and use.

General development

Generally large, deep lakes or lakes of varying sizes and depths with high levels and mixes of existing development. These lakes often are extensively used for recreation and, except for the very large lakes, are heavily developed around the shore. Second and third tiers of development are fairly common. The larger examples in this class can accommodate additional development and use.

Watercourses (rivers and streams)


Primarily located in roadless, forested, sparsely-populated areas of the northeastern part of the state. Common land uses include multiple-use forestry, some recreation facilities, and occasional seasonal or year-round residential. Low intensity recreational uses of these river segments and adjacent lands are common. This class has limited potential for additional development and recreational use due to land suitability and road access constraints.


Located in forested, sparsely to moderately populated areas with some roads in the north-central part of the state. Predominant land uses include multiple-use forestry, some recreation facilities, seasonal residential, and, within commuting distances of several cities, some year-round residential. Low-intensity recreational uses of these rivers and adjacent lands are common. This class has substantial potential for additional development and recreational use.


Generally either located within the Minnesota and Mississippi river valleys, or within the middle reaches of several rivers in all regions except the north-central and northeast. Common land uses include forested within riparian strips and mixtures of cultivated, pasture, and forested beyond. Some seasonal and year-round residential development exists, particularly within commuting distance of major cities. The types and intensities of recreational uses within this class vary widely.


Located in well-roaded, intensively cultivated areas of the western and southern regions of the state. Cultivated crops are the predominant land use, with some pasture and occasional feedlots, small municipalities, and small forested areas. Residential development is not common, but some year-round residential use is occurring within commuting distances of major cities. Some intensive recreational use occurs on these river segments in particular areas, but overall recreational use of these waters and adjacent lands is low. Although potential exists for additional development and recreation, water quality constraints and competing land uses, particularly agriculture, will inhibit expansions


Located within or adjacent to major cities throughout the state. A variety of residential and other urban land uses exists within these segments. Recreational uses of these segments and adjacent lands are common, but vary widely in types and intensities. These segments have potential for additional development, for redevelopment, and for additional recreational use, although recreational use on some of these segments competes with commercial river traffic.


Includes all public water watercourse segments that have not been assigned one of the above specific classifications. These segments have a wide variety of existing land and recreational use characteristics. The segments have considerable potential for additional development and recreational use, particularly those located near roads and cities.

Watercourses may have multiple shoreland classifications. This is because watercourses often extend for miles and flow through a wide variety of landscapes with different land uses and activities.

Where to find classifications

All local government shoreland zoning codes list public waters and their shoreland classifications. Contact your local government planning and zoning office for information about basin and watercourse classifications and the dimensional standards that apply to them. On rare occasions, local government classifications may differ from the DNR classification.

DNR classifications can be found in this mapping application. To view a larger version, open the shoreland mapping application in a browser window.




GIS users can also download these two data sets from the Minnesota Geospatial Commons:

Unclassified public waters

Minnesota statutes defining public waters have been modified over the years changing the types of waterbodies requiring a classification. As a result there are some public waters that do not yet have a classification. When these waters are evaluated for classification, the extent and density of existing and planned development, at the time of evaluation will be considered – not at some point in the past.


Shoreland classifications may only change if a city, township, or county requests a reclassification, and the DNR approves the reclassification. Please see the DNR process for requesting a reclassification

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