American Whitewater

Minnesota Navigability Report


In Minnesota, the public can use streams that can be legally accessed, for recreational boating. When a stream is designated as public waters, it can be used for wading, fishing, and swimming. From a legal standpoint, Minnesota is an ideal state for recreational boaters.

State Test of Navigability

Minnesota provides that a body of water is navigable so long as it is capable of being put to public use for sailing, roving, fishing, and fowling; taking water for domestic or agricultural uses; or other like purposes.1) For instance, under Minnesota law, floating logs and timber down a stream in substantial quantities at proper seasons is sufficient to establish navigability.2)

The State of Minnesota owns navigable waters and the lands under them for public use, as trustee for the public.3) Public use comprehends not only navigation by watercraft for commercial purposes, but the use also for the ordinary purposes of life, such as boating, fowling, skating, bathing, and cutting ice.4) For example, navigable meandering waters belong to the state, in trust for the public, and must be preserved for recreational use and enjoyment of the public.5)

Designated navigable waterways in Minnesota include: Big Fork River, Bois De Sioux River, Kawishiwi River, Kettle River, Little Fork River, Minnesota River, Mississippi River and Headwaters Reservoirs, Pigeon River, Pike River, Rainy River, Red River of the North, Red Lake River, Rum River, Snake River, St. Croix River, St. Louis River, Vermillion River, and the streams of the International Boundary Waters.

Extent of Public Rights in Navigable and Non-Navigable Rivers

Navigability and non-navigability mark the distinction between public and private waters. Minnesota law defines “public waters” to include, among other things: meandered lakes, excluding lakes that have been legally drained; water basins located within and totally surrounded by publicly owned lands; water basins where the state of Minnesota or the federal government holds title to any of the beds or shores, unless the owner declares that the water is not necessary for the purposes of the public ownership; water basins where there is a publicly owned and controlled access that is intended to provide for public access to the water basin; and natural and altered watercourses with a total drainage area greater than two square miles.6) In short, waters of the state are any surface waters or underground waters, except those surface waters that are not confined but are spread and diffused over the land. This includes all lakes, ponds, marshes, rivers, streams, ditches, and springs.

The general public can access public waters via public property, but not through private property. It is illegal in Minnesota to trespass on private property in order to gain access to public waters without first obtaining the verbal or written permission from a landowner.7) Individuals entering private property to access public waters without permission from the landowner are trespassing and may be prosecuted under the state trespass laws. A person who has legally gained access to a water body may use its entire surface for recreation, such as boating, swimming, or fishing.8)


The Public Water Inventory is a list of waters that have been declared subject to the public trust.9)

1) Lamprey v. State, 52 Minn. 182 (Minn. 1893).
2) Minnesota Canal & Power Co. v. Koochiching Co., 97 Minn. 429 (Minn. 1906).
3) Pratt v. State, Dep’t of Natural Resources, 309 N.W.2d 767 (Minn. 1981); Nelson v. De Long, 213 Minn. 425 (1942).
4) Sandborn v. People’s Ice Co., 82 Minn. 43 (Minn. 1900); In re Petition of Krebs, 213 Minn. 344 (Minn. 1942).
5) In re County Ditch No. 34, 142 Minn. 37 (Minn. 1919).
6) Minn. Stat. § 103G.005 (2006).
7) Letter by Assistant Attorney General of Minnesota, dated April 1, 1931, states that “no person has the right to go over private property to get to a stream or to walk along the water’s edge for any purpose without the permission of the landowner.”
8) Bartlett v. Stalker Lake Sportsmen’s Club, 168 N.W.2d 356 (Minn. 1969); State v. Kuluvar, 123 N.W.2d 699 (Minn. 1960).
9) See for public waters inventory maps and lists.
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