Zinke, Daines Request Water Release from Hungry Horse Dam to Stabilize Flathead Lake Levels

Historically low surface levels of Flathead Lake likely to impact businesses and recreation this summer

By Micah Drew
Old pier pilings rise out of the the shallow waters of Somers Bay on March 23, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Two members of Montana’s congressional delegation on Thursday sent a letter to Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) Commissioner Camille Touton asking for assistance in stabilizing Flathead Lake’s water level.

Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines, both Republicans, asked the commissioner to increase flow from Hungry Horse Dam along the South Fork Flathead River to prevent Flathead Lake from reaching a predicted July water level of 22 inches below full pool — a historically low level that has given rise to concerns by businesses and boat owners whose livelihoods turn on the health of the lake.

“There’s too much at stake economically, environmentally, and for public safety for the federal government to ignore this oncoming crisis,” Zinke said in a press release accompanying the letter. “Luckily, Reclamation has the authority, and precedence [sic] has been set, to increase flow from Hungry Horse Reservoir to stabilize Flathead Lake levels. I’m urging the commissioner to use that authority and take action now to prevent irreversible damage to the greater Flathead Lake community.”

After peaking on June 12, the water level on Flathead Lake began to decline due to the early melt out of the region’s minimal snowpack. On June 29, the water level on Flathead Lake had reached an all-time low for this time of year, according to U.S. Geological Survey data, with surface water levels reaching 2,892.02 feet, or 11.5 inches below the dam-controlled lake’s full-pool mark and well below the 23-year median. With streamflow volume forecasts for June and July at 40% and 34% of average, respectively, Flathead Lake is expected to drop to around 22 inches below full pool by July 12, which would have substantial impacts on the region’s recreation-heavy economy.  

The letter to the Commissioner cited an instance in 2001 when the BoR authorized water designated for salmon flows on the Columbia River system to partially mitigate similar low water levels on Flathead Lake. That year the lake reached an early summer peak of 2,892.34 feet in June before beginning to decline. A peak pool of 2,892.98 feet was achieved by that August.

Waterways throughout the Columbia River Basin are collectively managed through a series of 60 major dams, including the Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ (SKQ) Dam, which controls the output from Flathead Lake, and Hungry Horse Dam. Multi-jurisdictional operations manage the dams for flood control, energy generation and irrigation, as well as streamflow for fish migration and recreation.

Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ Dam. Beacon file photo

Brian Lipscomb, CEO of Energy Keepers, Inc., the corporation that operates SKQ Dam, said that on June 3 operators decreased the lake’s outflow to the lower Flathead River to the minimum streamflow allowed under the dam’s operating license, 12,700 cubic feet per second (cfs). Beginning July 1, outflow will be incrementally reduced to match inflows of roughly 4,500 cfs and the lake level will stabilize around July 12, according to Lipscomb.

“We’re not looking for that [outflow] minimum to be modified at all,” Lipscomb said. “That would mean sacrificing fish and other resources for a situation that is created because of climate change. This is going to become more of the norm going forward.”

Lipscomb said that mitigation efforts coming from Hungry Horse would require a substantial release of water to make a difference in Flathead Lake’s surface elevation — he estimates roughly 3 feet from Hungry Horse would raise Flathead Lake around 6 inches. There’s also a risk of ecological problems if that volume of water is released into the Flathead River too quickly, he said.

A policy advisor for Zinke said that with streamflow volumes along Flathead River so far below average, a release from Hungry Horse would not cause any environmental damage to the river system, mitigating potential concerns over trout and wildlife populations. According to Zinke’s office, the commissioner can make a unilateral decision about Hungry Horse Dam’s operations, and staff said they are “fairly confident” the Bureau will act on the request.

However, officials at the Bureau of Reclamation’s regional office in Boise indicated a much more collaborative decision-making process that must take place between BoR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages flood risk operations, and state and federal wildlife agencies before any releases can occur outside of normal operations.

Joel Fenolio, who oversees regional river and reservoir operations for BoR, said Thursday that although he’s aware of the situation on Flathead Lake, the current plan is to ensure the main stem of the Flathead River near Columbia Falls remains above its minimum volume without drawing down the reservoir more than 12 feet below full pool. Currently, Hungry Horse Reservoir is around 6.5 feet below full pool.

“This is a very unique situation. Across the basin it’s extremely dry,” Fenolio said, adding that in a normal year Hungry Horse doesn’t begin supplementing the Flathead River until August or September. This summer he expects that process to begin in late July.  

The Hungry Horse Dam. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Bill Dykes, the field officer at Hungry Horse Dam, said that since 1995 it has operated with environmental stewardship as a primary goal, followed by flood control and power generation.

“If we release water now, there’s only a finite amount of water, so that could create more impacts on fisheries later on in the year,” Dykes said. “Any impact to one reservoir will impact another, and it’s a balancing act. Sometimes there’s winners and there’s losers to that balancing.”

Barring mitigation efforts from Hungry Horse Dam or significant weather events, Flathead Lake’s surface level is forecast to drop for another two weeks until it stabilizes around 1.8 feet below full pool, prompting concern among businesses, boat owners and recreational users.

Flathead Lake. Beacon file photo

According to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP), which oversees the seven state park units along Flathead Lake, most public boat ramps along Flathead Lake will remain accessible even if the lake levels drop to 22 inches below full pool. However, the following public fixed piers and docks could be closed or inaccessible if lake levels drop for the remainder of the summer:

  • Flathead Lake State Park, Wayfarers Unit – Fixed dock would be inaccessible at 22 inches below full pool; ramp would remain accessible.
  • Flathead Lake State Park, Finley Point Unit – Marina and boat slips would be closed if lake levels drop 22 inches. Visitors with reservations would be contacted.
  • Woods Bay Fishing Access Site (FAS) – At 22 inches down, dock could be inaccessible.
  • Bigfork FAS – At 22 inches down, dock could be inaccessible.
  • Walstad FAS (in Big Arm) – At 22 inches down, dock could be inaccessible.

FWP officials also recommend all private dock owners closely monitor lake levels to avoid property damage and boaters should be aware of submerged hazards as lake levels decrease.