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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 8.0° F  Fair
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Lake-level letter: The untold story

The state Department of Natural Resources' recent reply to the city of Madison's request for a review of lake levels ("DNR on Water Levels: Hurry Up and Wait," 11/14/08) went through several major revisions and still managed to tick off a city official.

"There were substantial changes from what we put together," says Ken Johnson, a DNR water expert who helped prepare the agency's initial response. "It was completely rewritten." He recalls three or four major rewrites, which he says is "unusual."

DNR staff sent a proposed response to agency head Matthew Frank in early September, about three weeks after the city sought this review, according to emails obtained by Isthmus. It was then sent around for extensive review.

"We've done a lot of crafting on this," wrote Frank's executive assistant, Mary Ellen Vollbrecht, in an email to Johnson on Oct. 24, shortly before telling Isthmus there was not much difference between the original and final version. Vollbrecht refused to release the proposed reply, calling it a "draft" and hence not subject to the state's open records law, a dubious assertion given that it was shared with others.

Johnson says the final letter, released Nov. 10, achieved some of what he hoped but differed in other respects. "I'd say it was probably softened a bit."

Perhaps not enough. An email from Johnson relates: "I got an angry call from [Madison City Engineer] Larry Nelson, concerning the letter sent out today. Larry's take on the letter was that DNR is saying there is not a problem. I did my best to convince him that's not what the letter was intended to say or for that matter says."

The letter asks Madison to suggest a specific lake-level reduction and take the lead in building support for it among 22 local governments and interest groups. This will take many months, leaving the city vulnerable next year to catastrophic flooding.

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