Manitowish Waters Defense Fund Opposes the DNR’s Proposed Operating Order for the Rest Lake Dam and Urges All Concerned Citizens to Do the Same

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On May 30, 2014, the Wisconsin DNR released a proposed order that would change how the Rest Lake Dam has been operated for nearly 75 years. Because the Manitowish Chain Defense Fund (MCDF) believes the DNR’s proposal would have drastic negative impacts on the Manitowish Chain that far outweigh any discernable benefits, the MCDF opposes the DNR’s proposal and urges concerned citizens to do the same.

On May 30, 2014, the Wisconsin DNR released a proposed order (i) that would change how the Rest Lake Dam has been operated for nearly 75 years. The MCDF firmly believes that the DNR’s proposal would have drastic negative impacts on the Manitowish Chain that far outweigh any discernable benefits (ii). As a result, the MCDF opposes the DNR’s proposal and urges concerned citizens to do the same.

When the Public Service Commission established the current operating order for the Rest Lake Dam nearly 75 years ago, it followed the Legislature’s mandate to establish water level orders “in the interest of public rights in navigable waters or to promote safety and protect life, health, and property.” WIS. STAT. § 31.02(1).

In September 2012, after spending 10 years and countless taxpayer dollars studying potential changes to the operating order, the DNR issued an Environmental Assessment (iii) suggesting that changes to the operating order should be considered. In the opinion of the MCDF the EA and the material the Defense Fund submitted in response to the EA demonstrate that no changes are needed because the existing order has achieved a near-perfect balance of the relevant concerns:

  • The EA recognizes the Manitowish River is classified as an Outstanding Resource Water or Exceptional Resource Water both above and below the dam. This means the river and the Chain both provide outstanding recreational opportunities, support valuable fisheries and wildlife habitat, have good water quality, and are not significantly impacted by human activities. Thus, rather than demonstrate the system is in crisis, the MCDF believes the EA shows that the river and Chain both exhibit the hallmarks of a healthy system.
  • Although every dam creates artificial water levels and flows, all the evidence in the EA shows that because water levels on the Chain have been controlled so consistently for so long, they have become a new natural condition to which the environment has adapted exceedingly well. Therefore the MCDF believes there is no evidence that the current operation of the dam is causing any ongoing harm to any aspect of the environment.
  • The existing order has also fostered vast economic prosperity. The Chain is the crown-jewel in the area’s tourism-based economy, with an estimated $12.2 Million contributed by tourists and an additional $7 Million contributed by seasonal residents. Local development is also concentrated on the Chain, with nearly 1,400 private lake lots, 1 marina, 1 motel, 1 bed and breakfast, and 24 cabins and resorts, all with a combined assessed value exceeding $418 Million

These things did not happen overnight or by accident. Instead, they happened over generations, and they happened because the entire community adapted to the stable water levels on the Chain established by the PSC’s order. If the EA proves anything, the MCDF feels it proves that the existing order has been an unquestioned success in fostering decades of environmental and economic prosperity for the entire community and no change is necessary.

The DNR has been considering changes to the Rest Lake Dam operating order for more than ten years. In the process, the DNR has spent countless hours and taxpayer dollars trying to fix something that the MCDF believes isn’t broken. There has never been a public outcry for change. To the contrary, over 1,000 residents signed a petition several years ago to oppose changes to the operating order. More recently, 304 out of 305 persons who responded to a Defense Fund survey in 2012 indicated they oppose the DNR’s proposed changes (iv).

The MCDF sees the DNR as undaunted by public opinion. The DNR has now released a draft order that would make major changes to the operating order. Under the DNR’s proposal, water levels would rise by 30 inches in the winter, and water levels would regularly fall below established summer levels during the summer months. The DNR suggests these changes would have minimal impacts on riparian property owners and the Chain, but as far as the MCDF is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth.

The MCDF feels that the Manitowish Chain is unique and should be treated that way by the DNR. No other chain has been managed to maintain such consistent water levels in the summer months. No other chain has had a 42-inch winter drawdown every year for the past 100-plus years. And, most importantly, since no other chain has had such a consistent drawdown, no other chain has been developed with so many permanent dwellings, piers and shoreline protection structures on riparian properties several of which extend into the lakebed.

Because the Manitowish Chain is unique in these respects, the vast majority of riparian owners on the Chain are now being threatened with a double whammy by the DNR’s proposed changes to the operating order. The MCDF expects that in the summer, the DNR’s proposal would lead to lower water levels on the Chain, negatively impacting navigability for all. And, in the winter, the DNR’s proposal to keep more water in the Chain would lead to millions of dollars in property damage to riparian structures, including dwellings that extend into the lakebed.

The MCDF knows that the law does not allow the DNR to experiment with an operating order just because the DNR feels like it. Instead, the law requires the DNR to make reasonably informed judgments as to why changes are necessary and to fully identify and evaluate the consequences of any changes before changes are made so that the public may have meaningful input in the process.

One of the aspects of the DNR’s decade-long process that frustrates the MCDF most is that although local residents repeatedly asked the DNR to explain why changes are necessary in the first place, the Environmental Assessment issued by the DNR in 2013, in the MCDF's opinion, failed to provide any good reason for making changes to the operating order.

Now that the DNR’s proposed order has been released, that frustration has only deepened, because the DNR’s newly-proposed order sets forth an alternative the DNR did not identify, consider, or evaluate when it issued its EA. Because the newly-proposed order is drastically different from anything discussed in the EA, the MCDF believes the DNR has denied the public a fair opportunity to comment on the proposed order and how it will affect them.

The DNR will hold two public informational meetings regarding the draft order on June 27, 2014, at 12:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the Manitowish Waters Town Hall. The Defense Fund will be asking the DNR to reschedule the public informational meetings to late July 2014, to conduct more than two meetings total, and to conduct at least some meetings on one or more weekend dates so that the public will have a fair opportunity to be heard.

The DRN’s Draft Order can be downloaded here:

The Defense Fund urges concerned citizens to submit their commentary in writing to the DNR either before or during the upcoming public informational meetings and to their elected officials as well.

(i) Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, May 30, 2014,
(ii) Ecological Research Partners, Presentation to the Public Outline, Part 1 & 2, Neal O’Reilly, Ph.D. July 13, 2013, htpp://
(iii) Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Environmental assessment sections and appendices, Completed May 2013,
(iv) Property Owner Questionnaire Responses, September through November 2012,

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John McGraw