Zinke Continues Push to ‘Fill the Lake’ During Visit to Flathead County

During a press conference in Glacier National Park, Zinke doubled down on requests for immediate action to divert Hungry Horse Reservoir flows to Flathead Lake, a position at odds with federal operating procedures

By Micah Drew
U.S. Rep Ryan Zinke answers questions from reporters during a tour of road and bridge construction areas around Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on July 7, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

During a three-day swing through northwest Montana, U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke continued pressing for immediate federal action to mitigate historically low water levels at Flathead Lake by diverting flows from Hungry Horse Reservoir, a strategy increasingly at odds with other elected officials who have advocated for a collaborative interagency approach in line with federal agencies.

Speaking at a press conference in Glacier National Park on July 7, Zinke, the former Secretary of the Interior, said that he “guarantees” the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR), the federal agency that owns and operates Hungry Horse Dam, has the full authority to make a unilateral decision to release more water.

“Just release it from Hungry Horse Reservoir. It’s called a reservoir,” Zinke, a Republican, said. “Do the right thing, take action, start filling the lake. It’s only about 60 days left in the season; the reservoir has plenty of water.”

As northwest Montana faces moderate to severe early-summer drought conditions, record low streamflow throughout the Flathead River basin has led to an unprecedented water shortage in Flathead Lake. As of Friday evening, the lake’s surface elevation was 2,891.43 feet — 18.8 inches below full pool — a level that is increasingly affecting local recreational and agricultural businesses.

“Everyone I talk to about Flathead Lake says the same thing: ‘fill the lake,’” Zinke said. “The longer you wait the bigger the problem is … if I were still Secretary, it would already have been done.”

North Flathead Yacht Club on Flathead Lake in Somers on June 30, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Zinke’s push for immediate action at Hungry Horse is increasingly at odds with requests made by other Montana elected officials, as well as the BoR’s own statements regarding the dam’s operations.

Gov. Greg Gianforte on Thursday sent a letter to the Deputy Secretary of the Interior following up on a previous phone call about the “significant threat to the economic vitality of the region” the low water levels present.

In the phone call, the deputy secretary proposed releasing water from Hungry Horse as a potential solution, but Gianforte urged caution and requested a comprehensive analysis on the impact such action would have on the region.

Acknowledging the complex rules, regulations and multiple agencies involved in the governing of Hungry Horse Dam, the Republican governor wrote that “voices must be heard, and widespread consensus must be built,” before any action is taken.

Similarly, Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester also sent a letter to federal officials on Thursday, encouraging the BoR to act on any recommendations received from the interagency Technical Management Team (TMT) that makes decisions about major operational deviations at more than 60 federal dam projects in the Columbia River Basin.

Zinke’s comments that the decision to draw down Hungry Horse Reservoir, by dozens of feet if necessary, can be made by a singular agency head also runs counter to statements by the BoR in response to the increased attention in Montana. “Decisions about increasing flow rates from Hungry Horse Dam are considered by the entire [technical management] team,” according to a Friday press release. The TMT includes representatives from four states, BoR, Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bonneville Power Administration and six tribal nations.

Changes to dam operations can be requested if a TMT representative submits a system operation request (SOR) to the team for consideration at their July 12 meeting.  

U.S. Rep Ryan Zinke tours road and bridge construction areas around Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park on July 7, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Rep. Zinke’s trip to Glacier National Park wasn’t just focused on a lake 30 miles beyond the park’s borders, however. Along with two members of the House appropriations committee, Zinke got a close-up look at how federal funds are being used to reconstruct McDonald Creek bridge.

The upper McDonald Creek bridge is used to access private homes, trailheads and the Lake McDonald Ranger Station on the northeast shore of the lake. The 58-year-old bridge had deteriorated over the years despite recent repairs, and will be reconstructed roughly 30 feet upstream, with the completed structure ready for vehicle traffic next August.  

Funding for the project, along with several other infrastructure projects in Glacier in recent years, stemmed from the Great American Outdoors Act, which was co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

“Our parks needed some work, and the Great American Outdoors Act provided that core and essential infrastructure so that people can enjoy our parks,” Zinke said. He added that it’s important to get members of Congress, especially those who control the nation’s purse strings, to sites across the country to truly understand the issues important to other districts.

“You don’t learn a lot in Washington D.C.,” Zinke said. “The only time I learn things is when I go into the field and actually talk to people.”

Zinke also touched on the divisive vehicle reservation system that was implemented three years ago. The system requires visitors to acquire a day-specific pass to access any of the park’s primary entrances between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m., a move that has successfully limited congestion inside the park. However, many local citizens have complained that the system locks them out of the park.

Earlier this year, Zinke complained on Twitter that the system’s reliance on recreation.gov “is a total scam” and has committed to working with park and agency officials to find alternate ways to preserve visitor experience without limiting Montanans in the area.

Alternate methods Zinke has floated include a shorter time period each day that vehicle reservations are needed and implementing a more robust shared transportation system, though he shies away from bringing in a fleet of buses.

“We want to provide something cool where people want to get on to experience the park,” he said. “Ninety percent of visitors will wander off the road after about 200 meters. Most of the park experiences, people will come to the lodge or see a waterfall behind them and I think we can do better at opening up that experience.”

“We want to share the experience of the park, but we also want to protect the experiences we all share,” he said.

A crane towers over McDonald Creek for reconstruction of the North Lake McDonald Road bridge in Glacier National Park on July 7, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

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