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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison flooding 'catastrophe' feared
Downpour adds urgency to contentious lake-level debate
Bill Barker: 'This is something we need to be paying attention to right now.'

Bill Barker calls what happened this week to Lake Delton - where overflowing water violently carved a new path and drained the lake - "a pretty good example of what could happen to Tenney Park."

The Madison Park Commission president is sounding an alarm about the dangerously high levels of the Madison lakes, especially Lake Mendota. After last weekend's deluge, the levels of all four Yahara chain lakes are above the recommended maximum, and within a foot of the 100-year flood elevation. (For daily readings of water levels, see the Dane County Lake Level Data.)

"This is something we need to be paying attention to right now," says Barker, noting that Lake Mendota has twice in recent years come close to overflowing into Tenney Park. "The river has demonstrated that it is trying to have an alternative path around the locks.

"I'm hoping to avoid a catastrophe. We need to take some water out of that lake."

But some local officials seem even more worried about the political danger of calling for lower levels, which may agitate lake users, including folks with big boats.

"What happens when you try to change the lake levels is you set up a conflict between lakefront homeowners, boaters and fishermen and everyone else," says Dane County Supv. Brett Hulsey. He predicts "a huge brouhaha."

Lake Mendota is now about five feet higher than before dams were built in the mid-1800s and the Tenney locks in 1904 (see "Getting Too High on the Lake," 6/29/07). This lets lakeshore property owners dock their boats without long piers or frequent dredging, but promotes shoreland erosion, especially of high-quality wetlands in Cherokee Marsh.

"We are concerned about frequent high water levels," says city engineer Larry Nelson. "We would really like to see lake levels lowered."

At its May meeting, the Park Commission passed what Barker calls "an emergency stopgap" resolution asking the city to seek a lake-level review and Dane County to manage Mendota at the summer minimum. What was the county's response? Barker: "We haven't heard a word from anybody."

Kevin Connors, director of Dane County Land and Water Resources, which manages water levels through the Tenney locks and gates, was unaware of this request: "Nobody shared that with us."

Before the weekend deluge, Lake Mendota was being managed toward the upper end of the six-inch summer range set by the state Department of Natural Resources. But at the time Lake Monona - the next link in the chain - was already above its summer maximum. Says Connors, "We have to look at the lakes comprehensively, as a system."

Madison Ald. Michael Schumacher is now drafting a resolution seeking a DNR review, with an eye toward lowering levels. He's concerned about the frequent flooding of homes in Cherokee Park and elsewhere, as well as the erosion of Cherokee Marsh.

"We have a massive erosion of wetland and shoreline," says Schumacher. He notes that the city recently joined with the county and state to acquire 259 acres in Cherokee Marsh, for just over $3 million. "I'd hate to see that purchase being washed away."

Schumacher says Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, in a meeting last week, said he may sign on as a cosponsor. The mayor is now in Germany, but in a recent interview seemed wary about pushing the issue.

While saying "water levels should be lower," the mayor advocated working through Yahara CLEAN, a new multi-agency effort to improve local lakes. "Maybe we can arrive at a community consensus."

Hulsey doubts it, calling the issue "déjà vu all over again." He served on a 2002 study group that couldn't decide whether to advocate lower levels. "I fought this war before, and I know how it ends - in a stalemate." And while he's not against lower levels, Hulsey fears that pursuing this through Yahara CLEAN will jeopardize its other goals. "We need to focus like a laser beam on what we need to do to make the lakes cleaner."

Barker is adamant that the city must act. "We just got a huge wake-up call," he says. "This is a time for leadership, not politics."

Besides, he believes property owners and recreational users can be won over, given their stake in the lakes: "If the conversation is framed the right way, boaters and fishers can understand this is in their best interest."

On Tuesday, as if to prove the point, the Mendota Yacht Club suspended sailboat racing on Lake Mendota, due to high water levels.

Lorraine Cook, the saga continues

The Dane County District Attorney's Office, not for the first time, is refusing to admit it's wrong in a sexual assault case, choosing to rely on a confusing and admittedly inaccurate police report. Deputy DA Judy Schwaemle, in an email, pointed to the same paragraph in Officer Amelia Soto's report that Isthmus speculated had caused confusion (see "DA's Office Misread Rape Case," 5/29/08).

That paragraph cites a nonexistent date and refers to statements made by Cook "later on in the interview" about a different event. Schwaemle concluded from this that Cook said the man who raped her on Jan. 8 also broke her arm five days earlier. (The man admits to having sex but says it was consensual; Cook reportedly suffered "blunt force trauma" injuries to her vagina and rectum.)

Schwaemle opted to not bring charges, saying a jury would not believe Cook willingly accompanied the man who assaulted her days before. The salt-in-the-wounds import: We can't prosecute because you've screwed everything up.

This week, after inquiries from Isthmus, Soto produced a supplemental report confirming that the date in the report was incorrect and noting there was "some confusion in the report...because Cook could not remember things that well in chronological order." Soto then points to a reference elsewhere in the report to Crockett having been the person who earlier broke Cook's arm. Finally, the officer clarifies that Cook ultimately admitted she "was unsure who had battered her."

Cook, 53, decided to report the sexual assault even though she was wanted on a probation violation because she feared for other women in the community. It was a foolish thing to care about. Cook, with no protest from the community, was jailed for nearly three months. Last week she was finally allowed to go home, after completing alcohol abuse treatment and securing a change in her probation conditions. The DA's office opposed this.

Past coverage of Lorraine Cook case:
"Raped, Then Thrown in Jail," 3/6/08
"Madison Rape Victim Jailed Again," 3/13/08
"Talking About Madison in North Carolina," 4/18/08
"DA Won't Charge Alleged Rapist, 5/1/08
"DA's Office Misread Rape Case," 5/29/08 (Second column item)

Wild goose chase

Jim McCoy was running through the Arboretum recently when he saw dogs barreling down on geese at the adjacent Nakoma Golf Club. The Madison special-education teacher "took umbrage" and began yelling at the dogs to stop. Two people in golf carts assured him the geese wouldn't be harmed. Later, he learned who let the dogs in: Nakoma. McCoy, formerly an attorney in Iowa, objects.

"I believe they were aggressive, and the potential for harm was there," he says, noting that goslings were present. "That offends me."

The golf course, confirms general manager Skip Avery, hired a Whitewater-based company called the Geese Police to bring in the dogs - border collies. "They're trained not to hurt the geese, just to make their lives miserable," he says. But the chasing only went on for two weeks, and Avery doesn't "see us able to win the battle" of keeping the geese, and especially their droppings, off the course.

Nakoma has tried other strategies, including putting wires in the ponds to impede access. Other clubs, notes Avery, have used cutouts of wolves to scare geese off. Nakoma is also eyeing a new USDA program to collect, test and remove geese from golf courses, eventually donating them to food pantries.

Such an approach is likely to ruffle the feathers of people like McCoy, who says: "Most of us find ways to coexist."

Correction: The print version of "Madison flooding 'catastrophe' feared" incorrectly reported that the elevation of Madison lakes is within an inch of 100-year flood levels. It is within a foot.

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