- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008

LAKE DELTON, Wis. | Not a cloud in the sky and the temperature is flirting with 90 degrees. Usually, it doesn’t get any better than this for the Tommy Bartlett water ski show.

But only about 200 people fill the 5,000-seat stadium on the shore of Lake Delton this day.

No jet boats towing human pyramids on water skis, no laser show dancing across the water. There’s just a juggler, sweating through his sequins, spitting balls into the air and tossing machetes over his head to weak applause.

The production that bills itself as the greatest show on H20 doesn’t have any H20. The lake bed is just a muddy moonscape.

Ironically, this all started with too much water. Torrential rain in June blew a giant hole in Lake Delton’s shoreline, letting all the lake’s water rush out and take vacation homes with it.

Now the resorts, restaurants and boat rental shops that hitched their survival to the water are barely hanging on.

“We just have never seen anything like this,” said Dawn Baker, co-owner of Sunset Bay Resort. “Unless someone can come up with a fantastic idea, I don’t know.”

Chicago building contractor William J. Newman built Lake Delton in the 1920s as a tourist draw just outside a settlement that later became Wisconsin Dells, about 50 miles northwest of Madison.

Today the condos, cottages and resorts that ring the lake and the water parks, restaurants and hotels in Wisconsin Dells are a destination for tourists from around the country. Travelers spent more than a billion dollars in the area last year.

Wisconsin Dells is thriving again this year.

But Lake Delton’s prosperity went down the drain on June 9 as thunderstorms flooded southern Wisconsin.

High water washed out a 700-foot-long section of earthen bank that separated the reservoir from the Wisconsin River. The 270-acre lake poured through the breach, washing away a section of highway and five shoreline homes. Video of the houses breaking in half and floating away was broadcast around the world.

Now the three dozen or so business on the lake-turned-mud hole are trying to survive.

Sunset Bay Resort’s Web site implores people not to cancel reservations: “The view of the lake is not bad, it’s just different.” The first part is a matter of opinion, the second indisputable - instead of cool, blue-black water, guests see a muddy desert dotted by stumps, buoys and junk.

Ms. Baker, the resort’s owner, said her revenue is down 60 percent from last year. She said media coverage of the disaster didn’t help.

“We’ve lost a tremendous amount of business,” she said. “Watching those houses go in the lake over and over again, I wish it would just stop.”

Terry Jacobson owned two of those houses, renting them out as vacation condos and estimating they were worth $1.5 million together. He runs two other resorts in Wisconsin, but thinks the Lake Delton breach has cost him $30,000 in revenue already this summer.

“Our finances are a disaster,” he said.

The Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau has offered Lake Delton resorts discount tickets to other area attractions.

Gov. James E. Doyle, a Democrat, has freed up $250,000 in grants to help tourist businesses statewide cope with flooding.

The state Tourism Department has mounted a public relations campaign in Chicago and the Minneapolis-St.Paul area to dispel any perception that Wisconsin is underwater, and is offering discount deals on its Web site.

Plans are being drawn up to repair the breach and refill Lake Denton. Tourism Secretary Kelli A. Trumble said the water should be back by next summer.

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