Flathead Lake’s Ever-Changing Identity

Biologists are monitoring the changing conditions of Flathead Lake and potential threats, including increased rail traffic and invasive species

By Dillon Tabish

YELLOW BAY — The first time Jack Stanford traveled the shores of Flathead Lake in 1972, he gaped at the translucent ripples.

“I nearly drove into the lake because it was so clear,” he said. “There have been a lot of changes in the lake but it’s nearly as clear today as it was then.”

Looking out at a crowd of nearly 150 lakeshore residents and other interested parties last week, the renowned scientist added, with a tone of warning in his voice, “Our well being is closely tied to the clarity of that water out there.”

Over the last five decades, Stanford has grown intimately familiar with the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. As the longtime director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station on the southeast shores of Yellow Bay, Stanford has led research efforts with his wife, Bonnie Ellis, and their team of scientists who all together are carrying on the legacy of Dr. Morton J. Elrod. A biology professor at the University of Montana, Elrod founded the field station in 1899, and 115 years later it’s one of the oldest active, and most respected, research stations in the U.S.

Flathead Lake – the 79th largest natural freshwater lake in the world, with over 200 square miles of water and 185 miles of shoreline – continues to evolve amid both natural and man-made influences, Stanford says. It also faces increasing threats to its iconic identity as one of the world’s cleanest lakes, including aquatic invasive species and increased rail traffic carrying crude oil and other chemicals throughout the Flathead River Basin.

Stanford explained the current conditions and circumstances surrounding the revered lake while presenting his “State of the Lake” report last week at the annual meeting of the Flathead Lakers, a nonprofit organization formed in 1958 to protect clean water and healthy ecosystems in the Flathead watershed. The organization presented Ellis with its Stewardship Award, recognizing 30 years of distinguished research that is regularly cited in scientific journals and ecology projects around the world.

Aquatic invasive species, such as non-native mussels and plants, are a worsening threat across the continent, and the same is true within the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem, which remains one of the last strongholds without major infestations.

During summer, boaters in Montana are required to stop at monitoring stations to ensure they are not carrying anything that could drastically harm the state’s lakes and aquatic ecosystems. This year there are 18 check stations and over 10,000 boats have been inspected, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Among those, there were 164 “fouled boats,” including three with mussels attached. Mussels are quick to reproduce and can clog intake pipes and damage piers and, most significantly, disrupt whole ecosystems and change a lake’s identity, according to biologists. The same goes for vegetation like Eurasian milfoil, which can rapidly take over a lake’s shoreline.

“We have to focus on our incredible resources and keep fighting,” Greg McCormick, president of the Lakers, said.

The amount of nitrogen continues to gradually increase in Flathead Lake, according to the field station’s ongoing monitoring data. Though nitrogen is naturally abundant in the environment, it is also introduced through sewage and fertilizers, which inevitably threaten water quality and habitat. The heightened nitrogen levels may be enhancing phosphorous limitation, too, Stanford said, which is an important change.

Also, Flathead Lake is getting warmer, Stanford said. Research shows the lake is warming by 1 degree centigrade per decade. At the same time, wind is consistently blowing more intensely than before.

“We’ve got all of these things going on, and now we’ve got an agency that’s manipulating the number of lake trout out there,” Stanford said, referring to the new efforts by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to largely reduce Flathead’s population of non-native lake trout.

In light of these emergent – and significant – changes, the FLBS is creating a new module that will be the first of its kind involving big lakes and will combine the robust database of research from the last century. It’s expected to become operational this year.

“We will be able to use some sophisticated computation to combine this all together, the physical factors and biophysical factors influencing water quality variables that we care about,” Stanford says. “We will build a computation that reflects how Flathead Lake works based on what we think we know.”

There’s always the chance that the research could be flawed in some way, Stanford acknowledged, but there’s also the chance that the new information will illustrate some severe issues.

“I just worry about the module telling us we did the wrong thing as far as taking the lake trout out of the lake, or we did the wrong thing on not paying attention to nitrogen loading,” he said.

The influx of rail traffic is also a growing concern, Stanford said.

Last year more than 400,000 carloads of oil were moved on America’s railroads, due in large part to the Bakken oil boom.

Stanford fears the toxic chemicals being shipped on the local rails could harm the Flathead River system if a spill or derailment ever occurred, similar to recent incidents across the U.S.

“These things are bad news, and what is not on the table right now is that when you get a break or accident, you don’t just get crude oil that maybe you can go mop up. You’ve got benzene plumes coming down and they are going to partially volatilize and they’re going to partially go into the water,” he said. “If they go into the water, they’re going to go into the aquifer system.”

Stanford would like to see more preparation around these sensitive areas, such as the Middle Fork, which flows into Flathead Lake.

“We’ve got to be able to have our act together if we do have the big accident,” he said. “Because believe me, if one of those big long trains goes into the Middle Fork, that will be something that we’ll regret for a long, long time.”

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