Flathead Lake Levels Affecting Boats and Business

At nearly a foot below the summer standard, low water levels are a concern for boaters

By Tristan Scott
Flathead Lake on July 10, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Boaters and business owners on Flathead Lake say historic low lake levels are already presenting problems, and they worry that if the trend continues the summer boating season could dry up early.

Tim Marinan is owner of TRM-T.R. Marinan Co., and has operated boatlifts and storage stations around the lake for 26 years. It’s only the second time he’s seen lake levels this low, and the first time he’s seen them drop so early in the summer.

“This is the first time the water level has affected us this early,” Marinan said. “I know of at least six customers with their boats stuck on lifts because there’s not enough water.”

The elevation of Flathead Lake’s surface has dropped one foot in less than a month, to just above 2,892 feet, the lake’s minimum target level for summer.

The drought conditions have led Northwestern Energy, which manages the lake’s outflows through Kerr Dam, to implement its drought management plan. The company announced earlier this month that it would be taking measures to maintain the lake’s elevation at roughly 2,892 feet, but boaters are concerned that irrigation pressures will force the level down even further.

Mark Dana, owner and manager at Lakeside Marine and Powersports, said the low lake levels have been an inconvenience but haven’t yet presented any serious issues; however, if the water goes down a few more inches it could prevent boats from accessing marinas, fueling stations and boat slips.

“It’s definitely concerning because we’re at the minimum right now and it’s only July,” he said. “We just opened up. If it goes down another six inches people are going to have problems.”

Ron Caldbeck owns Wildwave Watercraft and Boat Rentals in Lakeside and said boaters are complaining because their vessels are sitting so far below the rail of the dock.

Administrators at Northwestern Energy have asked to adjust the amount of water coming into Flathead Lake from Hungry Horse Dam as well, in the hopes of maintaining the new pool level of 2,892 feet through the end of August.

With the hottest part of the summer still ahead, the aim is to balance recreational and environmental needs with drought management.

In September, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes will take over the operation of Kerr Dam.

“We’re all taking a hit, but right now it is mainly an inconvenience for people,” Marinan said. “But any more than a foot drawdown, suddenly boat ramps aren’t going to be long enough, it’ll expose rocks, and if you have a boat slip in a shallower part of a marina, if it’s not deep enough you are just done boating for the year.”

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