County Commissioners Latest to Request Mitigation Efforts for Low Flathead Lake Levels

As Flathead Lake continues a trend toward a record-low pool, county officials join Montana congressional delegation in asking for water release from Hungry Horse Dam

By Micah Drew
Sunset on Flathead Lake on an island near Finley Point on July 10, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Commissioners on June 30 sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation’s (BoR) regional director requesting intervention to stabilize this summer’s historically low levels on Flathead Lake, which hydrologists predict will continue to drop before stabilizing later this month.

Following a letter sent Thursday to the BoR commissioner by two members of Montana’s congressional delegation, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, the Flathead commissioners asked for an increase in water flow from Hungry Horse Dam to prevent Flathead Lake from reaching a forecasted July water level of 22 inches below full pool.

Calling it a “pending crisis” and echoing the federal delegates, Commissioner Randy Brodehl wrote to BoR Regional Director Jennifer Carrington of the risks to the local economy, which is largely seasonal and dependent on summer recreation opportunities.

Citing a 2016 study by the University of Montana, Brodehl stated that summer tourists to the region contribute more than $600 million in spending on lodging, fuel, restaurants and retail.supporting more than 9,500 jobs in Flathead County.

“In short, we rely on the health and wellness of Flathead Lake to support our people and livelihood,” he wrote.

The latest models for Flathead Lake’s surface level show a possible drop to 22 inches, or 1.8 feet, below the full-pool elevation of 2,983. As of Friday evening, the lake level was at 2,891.91, a historic low for this time of year.

Streamflow volume forecasts for June and July are at 40% and 34% of average respectively, and have already led to mitigation efforts by Energy Keepers, Inc., the corporation that operates the Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ (SKQ) Dam and controls outflow from Flathead Lake.

Beginning on June 3, SKQ operators decreased the lake’s outflow to the lower Flathead River to the minimum streamflow legally 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 is expected to stabilize around July 12, according to Energy Keepers CEO Brian Lipscomb.

Upstream efforts to stabilize Flathead Lake by releasing water from Hungry Horse Dam would require authorization outside of the dam’s normal operations. Hungry Horse Field office manager Bill Dykes said the dam is managed 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 told the Beacon this week. “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.”

Water level of Flathead Lake through June 30. The lake is sitting more than a foot below its full peak level. | Data from USGS

Waterways throughout the Columbia River System (CRS) are collectively managed through a series of 60 major dams, including SKQ Dam and Hungry Horse Dam. The water management plan and operation of the CRS is a collaborative effort between the BoR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Bonneville Power Administration, in consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as state, tribal and local agencies. These agencies form the Technical Management Team (TMT) and are responsible for making in-season adaptive management recommendations that balance power generation, impact to endangered or threatened species and flood control.

As of Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for Zinke, a Republican from Whitefish who oversaw the Bureau of Reclamation in his former role as Secretary of the Interior under the Trump administration, indicated there had not yet been a response from the Bureau, nor any direct contact between the congressman and the BoR Commissioner.  

Both the letter from the county commissioners and from Montana’s congressional delegations reference economic as well as environmental consequences to low lake levels, but researchers with the Flathead Lake Biological Station said Friday there are no ecological concerns with the lake, even at the lowest projected levels.

Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ (formerly Kerr) Dam on August 13, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon