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Public Rights in Water: Public Trust Doctrine

Defining the Public Trust Doctrine

 The principle that certain resources are preserved for public use, and that the government is required to maintain them for the public's reasonable use.  


U.S. Supreme Court & Navigable Waters: Under the Public Trust Doctrine, the state holds its navigable waters and underlying beds in trust for certain public uses, principally navigation, commerce, and fisheries.  Illinois Central R.R. Co. v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892).  

Understanding the Public Trust Doctrine

"The law says . . . that the people own this water body.  They are not owned by the Governor, the Legislature, the developers, or the polluters.  They are owned by the people.  Everybody has the right to use them.  Nobody has a right to use them in a way that will diminish or injure their use and enjoyment by others. . .  This is ancient law."  Robert Kennedy, Jr.   

Common Law Interest in Shorelines

Coastal Sensitivity to Sea-level Rise: A Focus on the Mid-Atlantic Region 119 (EPA, 2009).

Titus, J.G., Rising seas, coastal erosion, and the takings clause: how to save wetlands and beaches without hurting property owners, 57 Md. L. Rev. 1277-1399 (1998).

Champions of the Public Trust

See how Wisconsin anglers and other citizens have fought to ensure that Wisconsin lakes and rivers belong to all state residents, and to secure the public's right to clean waters, good fishing, scenic beauty, and other benefits in those waters.

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