Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) The water on Flathead Lake has declined so much, it’s at the lowest recorded level in 23 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Business owners are calling for dam operators to help.

Shaun Padina said he has lost at least a couple of boat rental bookings because people who wanted to motor up to a dock for a meal at restaurants on the lake can’t necessarily do so.

“We’re a boat rental business, and I can see it affecting a lot of other businesses,” Padina said.

Politicians are agitating.

In a letter Thursday, Gov. Greg Gianforte asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to help identify a solution and requested it provide information to his office by July 11.

“These low water levels present a significant threat to the economic vitality of the region,” wrote Gianforte, a Republican, in the letter to Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau.

He requested the Department consult with the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies about releasing water from Hungry Horse Dam north of Flathead Lake to help mitigate the impacts on the Flathead Valley economy.

In a phone call and letter, Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl also said he’d like the Bureau of Reclamation to increase the amount of water flowing from Hungry Horse Dam into Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.

Anglers, boaters and other tourists support more than $600 million in spending in the county, according to a 2016 University of Montana study, but Brodehl said time is running short to fill the lake this season.

“Any relief will be welcome and will make a meaningful difference to the people of Flathead County,” Brodehl said in a June 30 letter to the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages Hungry Horse Dam.

Over the phone, Brodehl said commissioners would like to see 60 days of water levels within one foot of “full pool.” However, he said this week, the lake level dropped and it’s pushing nearly 19 inches below that limit.

“The wiggle room got lost last week,” Brodehl said.

The lower water levels aren’t affecting the ecology of the lake just yet, according to the Flathead Lake Biological Station of UM.

The U.S. Coast Guard could not be reached via voicemail Wednesday about navigation or safety concerns.

However, the record low lake level this year is part of a pattern of anomalies in runoff and water supply that is hardly new, according to Energy Keepers, Inc., which manages the Salish Kootenai Dam in Polson, on the south end of the lake.

“This is the first year that it’s gotten to the point where it’s become noticeable, I think, on a grand scale,” said Energy Keepers CEO Brian Lipscomb.

And he said it won’t be the last given volatility in climate. Dock owners who rely on high water will need to think about things differently, he said, and water operators such as his company are doing the same.

Swimmers and canoiests enjoy Wayfarers State Park on Flathead Lake, one of the busiest state parks in Montana. (David Reese/Missoula Current file)
Swimmers and canoiests enjoy Wayfarers State Park on Flathead Lake, one of the busiest state parks in Montana. (David Reese/Missoula Current file)

Most reservoirs in the Columbia Basin are well below “full pool,” he said, some by several feet. He said Hungry Horse, for example, is more than six feet below full pool.

“So holding Flathead Lake artificially high through the recreation season is just not our future. It’s going to be different,” Lipscomb said.

Flathead Lake water levels fluctuate anyway, typically roughly eight feet in any given year, said Cheryl Miller, hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center.

However, this year, it’s about a half a foot lower than it would normally be around this time, and that’s a lot of water for such a large lake. Plus, the drop has been quick.

“We are already lower than it typically stabilizes out at during the summer,” Miller said.

This year, she said the highest water levels occurred during early June. A chart of historic water levels shows this year’s line declining since the middle of June, whereas the median line holds steady.

Lipscomb said the Energy Keepers must meet certain licensing requirements for the lake and the reservoir, including to hit 10 feet below full pool on the lake by April 15 to be able to catch spring runoff and help with flood control.

This year, however, the “water year,” which starts in October, was dry, he said. The Flathead basin as a whole was at 90%, but the northern half was dry, so the Energy Keepers started catching water six weeks early, he said.

But he said the runoff, which usually starts in May and goes through July, all came in May.

It took place so quickly, he said the Energy Keepers sought and received relief from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding flood control requirements. The relief allowed Energy Keepers to fill the lake more than two feet above the May 15 requirement — and to reach “full pool” three days earlier than the June 15 requirement, he said.

But their license requires minimum flows, he said — 12,700 cubic feet per second in June, for instance — so the Energy Keepers can’t turn the dial at will to try to keep Flathead Lake more full and remain in compliance with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The early drop in Flathead Lake compared to median levels is eliciting phone calls to elected leaders from dock owners and business people.

Brodehl said Republican Congressman Ryan Zinke is leading the charge in advocating for the Bureau of Reclamation to allow more water out of Hungry Horse Dam, and Zinke and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, also a Republican, are pushing to make it happen.

Thursday, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, also sent a letter expressing concerns to the Bureau of Reclamation, according to a post on Twitter by the Flathead Beacon.

A Bureau of Reclamation spokesperson said the agency has received requests from Zinke and Daines, but it operates Hungry Horse Dam “within the constraints outlined in biological requirements established in 2020.”

To change those operations, the State of Montana needs to submit a request to a Technical Management Team made up of stakeholders with biological interests in the Columbia River System, said spokesperson Michael Coffey: “Currently, Reclamation is unaware of any such requests.”

In his letter to the Department of the Interior on Thursday, Gianforte said Deputy Secretary Beaudreau had discussed with him last week Hungry Horse water releases as a potential solution. He said tribes, federal agencies, and other entities would be affected, and the governor recommended widespread consensus and fast action.

“In particular, I request that the Bureau of Reclamation provide an analysis to the State of Montana regarding how much water could be available from the Hungry Horse Project, what impact that water will have on water levels in Flathead Lake, and the projected timelines associated with possible releases,” Gianforte said in the letter.

Meanwhile, Padina, who owns the boat rental business, said the low water means damage to his boats. He said most of the docks his clients would be using are stationary ones and not floating.

Padina also said he believes the solution is to take away control of the Salish and Kootenai Dam from the Energy Keepers of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The issue has seemed to boil over this year, but it’s not surprising to plenty of observers.

It also comes on the heels of an historic trial in Montana that drew international attention; 16 youth sued the state alleging it needs to address greenhouse gas emissions in order to protect their future, including their interests in recreation.

During the trial of Held vs. Montana, climatologists testified the state has warmed 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, the trend will accelerate, and “extreme events” will take place more frequently and in greater magnitude.

Lipscomb said climate has been part of the everyday conversation at the Energy Keepers since the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes acquired the dam in 2015.

The climatologists are predicting volatility, and the Energy Keepers are witnessing it; Lipscomb said they experienced one of the driest years on record when the tribes first took over, and then shortly after, one of the wettest years.

“You’re going to see more of what you’re seeing now,” Lipscomb said. “It’s certainly not going to be every year. But it’s going to be more (frequent).”

In a phone call, Kate Sheridan, executive director of the Flathead Lakers, said it’s important for all the players to come to the table in order to plan ahead, and it won’t be easy because their charge is to “expect the unexpected” and deal with “the new norm.”

The Flathead Lakers group has a mission to protect clean water, healthy ecosystems and “a lasting quality of life in the Flathead watershed.”

That new norm includes changing weather patterns and varying amounts of precipitation in the future, she said. Sheridan said the ecological health of the lake is deeply intertwined with the economic health of the region, and wildlife can adapt to short term changes, but people need to plan together for the long term.

“We are going to see greater ranges, and we’re going to see seasons and weather that we haven’t seen before. So how can we be resilient in the face of that?”

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