Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a Drainage District?

Drainage districts are local governmental entities organized primarily to drain lands for agricultural use. The majority of drainage districts in Wisconsin were formed in the early 1900s and established a legal mechanism for managing drains and related facilities to ensure reliable drainage. The districts are primarily governed by Drainage of Lands, Chapter 88, Wis. Stats.  Drainage districts can include and benefit both agricultural and non-agricultural lands. Districts may also extend beyond municipal and county lines. Property owners who benefit from drainage districts pay assessments to cover the cost of constructing, maintaining, and repairing district drains.

The Dane County Drainage Board holds public meetings to discuss issues and make decisions involving the drainage districts, which may extend into neighboring counties. The drainage board ensures that all drainage districts under its jurisdiction comply with state standards by:

  • Managing district boundaries, including annexing or withdrawing lands
  • Conducting inspections annually and as necessary
  • Undertaking drain maintenance and construction projects
  • Levying assessments and borrowing money for projects
  • Ensuring that actions of others do not adversely affect drainage rights of individual landowners
  • Promoting the public health or welfare and draining or protecting lands with the least damages and greatest benefits to all.

2. How can I determine if I am located in a district?

To find out which district your property is located in visit:

To find out statewide information on drainage districts visit Drainage Districts webpage from the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

3. What statutes govern Drainage Districts?

Drainage Districts are primarily governed by:

Districts may also be required to satisfy other applicable provisions found in:

4. How do Drainage Districts operate?

A drainage district acts as one system, orchestrating the drainage of land by ditches and tiles that cross individual property boundaries, often municipal boundaries and, occasionally county boundaries prevent soil flooding. Along with accepting water from farmland, the ditches take water from platted areas and in some districts municipal treatment plants. The landowners in a district whose land benefits from the drainage pay an assessment to cover the cost of maintaining and repairing the district system for the benefit of all. A local Drainage Board, typically comprised of 3 members appointed by the circuit court, inspect the ditches and holds public meetings to discuss issues and make decisions involving a district.

5. What are the advantages of Drainage Districts?

Drainage Districts provide for orderly drainage of farm land. Farm land often has too much water for optimal growing conditions. Consequently, the farmers rely on surface and subsurface drainage systems to remove water from the fields to increase crop yield. These systems also have non-agricultural benefits such as protecting structures built below grade (i.e., basements and septic tanks) from flooding. When landowners individually drain their fields, divert storm water, or pump out their basements, it can negatively affect the landowners downstream. The removal of surface water and groundwater is best approached in a systematic manner.

By organizing a drainage district, landowners have the advantages of:

  • Pooling resources and sharing responsibilities to achieve a common good;
  • Securing an engineered system that provides reliable drainage;
  • Supporting an organized framework for effective management of operations;
  • Avoiding and resolving landowner conflicts related to water management.

6. What is a Drainage Board?

Typically consisting of three members, a county drainage board is responsible for operating all districts in the county. However, because districts may extend across more than one county, a board’s jurisdiction may extend into another county.

The Dane County Drainage Board holds public meetings to discuss issues and make decisions involving the drainage districts. The Drainage Board ensures that all drainage districts under its jurisdiction comply with state standards. A Board may take actions that include:

  • Operating and maintain district drains and dams within district drains;
  • Managing district boundaries, including annexing or withdrawing lands;
  • Conducting inspections annually and as necessary to the drains and corridors;
  • Undertaking drain maintenance and construction projects;
  • Levying assessments and borrowing money for projects;
  • Ensuring that actions of others do not adversely affect drainage rights of individual landowners;
  • Promoting the public health or welfare and draining or protecting lands with the least damages and greatest benefits to all.

7. What statutes and rules govern the Drainage Board?

The Drainage Board is governed by:

Additional information:


8. How are the members of the Drainage Board selected?

Board members are appointed by the circuit court. The Board must consist of at least three members but may include up to five. Members serve staggered three year terms. The Board must include one experienced farmer familiar with drainage and one member familiar to some extent with drainage engineering.

9. Where can I find the agendas and minutes for the Drainage Board meetings?

For information on the Dane County Drainage Board meetings please visit the Drainage Board Information webpage.

10. How can I learn about activities in my district and provide feedback to the Drainage Board?

Dane County Drainage Board meetings are subject to open meetings law and thus the public are invited to attend and learn about activities in the district and provide feedback.

For information on the Dane County Drainage Board meetings please visit the Drainage Board Information webpage.



11. How are assessments calculated and used?

Assessing benefits to non-agricultural lands

A drainage district was originally formed to provide an outlet (ditch or tile main) for on-farm drainage systems. Over several years, municipalities (city or village) expanded into drainage districts. Land with assessed drainage benefits was subdivided and houses or businesses built.  The original drainage benefits assessed to the agricultural lands still exist. When these changes occur, drainage boards face the challenge of determining how to reassess benefits to account for land that is no longer used for agriculture.

Agricultural drainage benefits are calculated by determining the degree to which drainage will improve growing conditions in fields. The soils in fields retain moisture differently, and as a result have different drainage characteristics. Farms fields may be characterized as somewhat poorly drained, poorly drained, and very poorly drained. These drainage characterizations determine the level of on-farm drainage needed to achieve an aerated root zone for good crop growth.  Simply said, the wetter the soil is, the greater the benefit drainage will provide.  Naturally well-drained soils do not have a drainage benefit.

The concepts of drainage benefits do not apply to land not used for farming. The options available to a drainage board for assessing drainage benefits to non-agricultural lands are spelled out in an administrative rule (Chapter 48) from the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection titled Drainage Districts.

The rule says the drainage board may reassess drainage benefits based on land use changes and the subdivision of lands (48.06). The drainage board may use land use categories which can include residential uses and commercial uses (48.08(4)).

When assessing drainage benefits to nonagricultural lands, the drainage board may consider the extent and frequency of additional discharges from the nonagricultural lands to district drains, and the drainage district’s additional cost to accommodate those additional discharges. The additional discharges may include storm water, wastewater, and runoff from impermeable surfaces (48.10). Village of Little Chute v. Outagamie County Drainage, Case No. 2010AP2159, available at (Reasonable to assess non-ag land based on impervious surface). This process is similar to that used in a storm water management district to collect monies for the district’s operation.

A second option for assessing drainage benefits to nonagricultural lands is a flat amount per lot, per acre, or per building or residence.

The drainage board makes an assessment for cost to pay for the operation of the drainage district.  The cost includes those associated with an annual inspection, creating the annual report, conducting district meetings/hearings and an annual meeting, attorney fees, maintenance and repair of district facilities, and a reserve available for maintenance and catastrophic events.

12. What is the role of the Dane County Treasurer in the Drainage District?

As directed by Chapter 88, Wis. Stats., Drainage of Lands, the County Treasurer’s Office collects the district assessment payments and keeps a complete and accurate accounting record for the receipts and expenditures of each district’s funds.

Although the Treasurer does not serve as a member of the Farm Drainage Board, there are responsibilities to fulfill as the treasurer of the Drainage Board. The Treasurer signs the assessment notices, which are prepared and mailed by the Drainage Board to the respective property owners. As district assessment payments are received in the Treasurer’s Office, they are recorded and credited toward the appropriate parcel and drainage district. By order of the Drainage Board, the Treasurer’s Office disburses payments for expenditures accrued by each drainage district.

Upon request by the Drainage Board, the Treasurer’s Office provides the Board with balances of each district’s funds and a record of any unpaid district assessments. By November each fall, the Drainage Board coordinates with the property lister to add any unpaid assessments with the interest onto the respective real estate property tax bills for collection in the same manner as general taxes. The Treasurer’s Office then settles with the district when taxes are paid.

1. Where do I turn for assistance and background information?

The Dane County Erosion Control & Stormwater Management Manual provides information to help landowners, developers and consultants meet the requirements of Dane County's Erosion Control and Stormwater Management Ordinance.  For more information about this topic, visit the Erosion Control and Stormwater Management webpages.

2. Does my project require a permit?

The nature and scope of your project and its proximity to surface water resources will determine whether or not a permit is required from our office. Please refer to our Permit Information Sheet which outlines the permitting requirements. If you have any questions regarding your project and permit applicability please contact one of our staff.

3. How do I know if my project is located in the Shoreland Zone?

You can use the Land & Water Resource Viewer to determine if your project is located in the shoreland zone. Simply enter the address or tax parcel number of your project in the search field in the upper right corner or navigate to the location of your project on the map.  Once zoomed to the location of your project, click on the “Map Contents” folder located on the toolbar across the top of the page. Scroll down and check the box labeled “Shoreland Zone”. The shoreland zone is depicted as a dark purple shadow (within 300’ of a stream/lake/pond) and a light purple  shadow (within 1000’ of a lake/pond) on the map. The 1% annual chance (100-year) floodplain and DNR wetland layers can also be added by checking the appropriate box under “Water Resources” of the map contents folder. 

4. Where do I apply for a permit?

Depending on the municipality in which your proposed project is located, you may need to apply with Dane County’s Water Resource Engineering Division or with your local municipality.  Where to Apply for a Permit?

5. What tools will assist me in completing an application?

6. How long does it take to get permit approval?

Applications are reviewed in the order they are received. Staff will inform you or your consultant of plan deficiencies or permit approval within 15 working days. Deficiencies can be corrected by revising the application materials or submitting additional information. In some cases, simplified permit applications can be reviewed and issued the same day. For a same day review of a simplified application, please contact one of our staff to make an appointment.  

7. How long is my permit good for?

Permits are issued for the timeframe specified in the approved plan, and expire on the stabilization date as described or included in the soil loss analysis. Erosion Control Permits can be issued for a maximum period of 3 years. Stormwater management permits are issued in perpetuity and do not expire. The permit expiration date is described in the approval memo and printed on the permit card.

8. How do I revise my permit?

Any changes to the approved plan or schedule need to be submitted for review prior to implementation. Revisions must be submitted in writing and will only be accepted prior to permit expiration. At minimum, a revision consists of a written request and the supporting documentation (i.e. revised plans, revised schedule and soil loss analysis). Your consultant can help you prepare the necessary information. 

9. What is a maintenance agreement?

A maintenance agreement is a legal document recorded with the Dane County Register of Deeds that prescribes specific maintenance tasks for required permanent practices. All permanent stormwater management practices and vegetated buffers must be maintained in perpetuity. This document and the maintenance responsibilities transfer with changes in ownership. The executed maintenance agreement and recording fee must be submitted prior to permit issuance.   

10. What are as-built plans?

As-built plans are a record set of drawings submitted by a professional engineer following the completion of construction. As-built plans are required for all permanent stormwater management practices, including the vegetative buffer. As-built plans should be submitted within 10-days of completion of the project. 

1. How do I know if my project requires a Shoreland Mitigation Permit?

If your project is located within 300 feet of a navigable waterway (i.e. lake, pond, river, or stream) you will need to contact Dane County Zoning for a Shoreland Zoning Permit. Dane County Zoning staff will determine whether or not the project requires a Shoreland Mitigation Permit. You will receive written confirmation of their determination. You can use the Land & Water Resource Viewer to determine if your project is located within 300 feet of a navigable waterway.  

2. Do I need to hire a professional engineer to prepare a shoreland mitigation permit?

In most cases, yes. The stormwater management component of the mitigation permit must be designed by a professional engineer licensed in Wisconsin. Certain exemptions do apply for projects that do not require the stormwater management performance standards to be met. It is recommended that you work with a qualified professional that specializes in native plantings or shoreland restoration when buffer restoration is required. 

3. How do I apply?

After receiving your shoreland zoning permit determination letter from Dane County Zoning, submit two complete copies of all application and plan materials and the permit fee in person at the Water Resource Engineering Office. If the person submitting the application is not the landowner, a notarized statement signed by the landowner authorizing the applicant must be included.

4. The vegetative buffer zone on my site is already established. How do I document that in my vegetative buffer plan? Do I have to do anything above and beyond maintaining the current vegetation?

The vegetative buffer zone must consist of species native to south central Wisconsin, and meet or exceed the density requirements and other standards described in NRCS Conservation Practice 643a “Shoreland Restoration” and Wisconsin Biology Technical Note 1. If you intend to utilize the existing vegetation, the vegetative buffer plan should include an inventory of the existing species, their locations, densities, photos and a landscape plan showing their approximate location. The plan must also include removal and replacement of undesirable species such that the standards referenced above can be met within the establishment period.

5. Are retaining walls or terraces allowed within the vegetative buffer zone?

The use of native vegetation, matting and biological stabilization options are preferred. However, a boulder or rock retaining wall and/or terraces may be allowed in cases where it is shown to be structurally necessary for stabilization of a steep slope. A variance from the vegetative buffer standard may be necessary.

6. How long do I have to establish the buffer?

The buffer must meet the design standards and dimensional requirements within 3 years of permit issuance. The vegetative buffer plan should identify a specific planting schedule based on the methods of establishment and the needs of the site. It should be noted that native plantings can take years to successfully establish and delaying planting is not recommended. The buffer must be planted to complete the as-built plan process and release any financial security held for the project.