Gianforte Blasts Task Force for ‘Punting Responsibility’ to Raise Flathead Lake Levels

The Columbia River Basin’s Technical Management Team met Wednesday to discuss potential mitigation requests, including drawing from Hungry Horse Reservoir

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

Facing mounting political pressure to restore historically low water levels on Flathead Lake, a multi-agency task force that manages the region’s federally operated dams met Wednesday for the first time since Montana’s elected leaders began calling for water releases from Hungry Horse Reservoir as a strategy to offset the depleted surface levels.

The Columbia River Basin Technical Management Team (TMT) on July 12 discussed potential mitigation strategies and heard from a range of regional stakeholders who aired economic and recreational concerns over the record-low lake levels.

To request a deviation from normal dam operations, however, the TMT must receive a formal System Operational Request (SOR), which none of Montana’s representatives had submitted as of Wednesday. Instead, the meeting consisted of a general discussion about the low water levels, with next steps to be determined at a later meeting.

In a statement released late Wednesday afternoon after the meeting’s conclusion, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte accused the TMT of inaction and expressed his frustration that a solution remained out of reach.

“The drought in the Flathead Valley is a serious issue that requires serious solutions, and I’m disappointed and frustrated that the Technical Management Team isn’t shooting straight on this,” Gianforte said in the prepared statement. “Ultimately, the federal agencies which oversee the Hungry Horse Project have the data and authority to make an informed decision, and I urge them to use that to act instead of punting their responsibility.”

The governor also stated that he had not yet received a formal analysis for a release from the Hungry Horse Dam, despite previously referencing “data and information” received from the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR) earlier this week. In a July 11 letter to the TMT, Gianforte cited analysis provided by the BoR indicating that to restore Flathead Lake to within a foot of full pool, Hungry Horse Reservoir’s water level would need to be drawn down approximately 15 feet, an unprecedented release officials worry could have lasting impacts. The governor’s office later clarified to the Beacon the data they had received was “partial and incomplete.”

Gianforte also requested that the TMT review the dam’s operations plan to determine whether changes should be made to allow more flexibility in future scenarios.

The TMT, composed of representatives from four states, the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR), Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bonneville Power Administration and six tribal nations, on Wednesday heard from Flathead and Lake county commissioners who detailed the economic hardships caused by the low lake levels.

“We are losing our ability to irrigate on the east side of the valley,” Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl told members of the TMT during Wednesday’s conference call. “We also have about $600 million in recreation economy that comes into the valley off the lake. That economy is being directly impacted.”

Flathead Lake’s surface elevation was 2,891.1 feet on Wednesday, according to data by the U.S. Geological Survey, a full 22.4 inches below full pool. At those levels, many marinas along the lake are unable to operate some boat lifts and gas pumps, and many boat owners are pulling their craft from the water rather than risk damaging or stranding the vessels. In addition, low lake levels and historically low streamflow along the Flathead River is limiting the agricultural industry, currently amid the potato, canola and wheat growing season.

“Our concerns are mainly recreation and tourism,” Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker said. “Lots of businesses rely on Flathead Lake for a variety of summer activities. Folks were unprepared for this and it’s been a really hard time just trying to deal with this.”

Brodehl and Decker verbally requested that the TMT take actions to release enough water from Hungry Horse Reservoir to bring the lake to within a foot of full-pool — an increase of roughly 8 inches, which the group’s representatives said would require dropping the reservoir 15 feet. 

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

Hungry Horse Reservoir is managed for power generation and to maintain water levels along the Flathead River for downstream fisheries. With streamflow forecasts for July projected at 34% of normal, the reservoir will likely be required to begin augmenting river levels earlier than normal, according to Joel Fenolio, who oversees regional river and reservoir operations for BoR. Fenolio told the TMT he had concerns about drawing the reservoir levels further than is already anticipated to meet operational needs.

“Instead of the initial target of 12 feet from full pool at the end of the summer, we’re looking at the reservoir coming in between 15 to 18 feet from full,” he told the TMT. Drawing down the reservoir by the requested 15 additional feet would put it at unprecedented seasonal levels. “It’s a hot, dry summer … And if we get another dry year, I think we could be in very dire straits in terms of Hungry Horse’s refill next year.”

On the southern end of Flathead Lake, Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ (SKQ) Dam, operated by Energy Keepers Inc., controls the output from Flathead Lake. According to Energy Keepers CEO Brian Lipscomb, dam operators refilled Flathead Lake by aggressively capturing the spring runoff during the first weeks of May, when the region’s below-average snowpack melted out at the fastest rate seen in 30 years. As water supply forecasts for the summer came in lower than expected, SKQ operators decreased lake outflow to the lower Flathead River to the minimum allowable streamflow beginning June 3. Those minimums are set under the dam’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license and deviations are not allowed unless extreme drought prevents the initial filling of Flathead Lake.

Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ (Formerly Kerr) Dam. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Because the region’s dams are regulated for multiple purposes, including environmental and biological stewardship, flood control and power generation, any decision affecting one portion of the collective waterways will necessarily impact those downstream. In the Flathead River basin specifically, Hungry Horse Dam regulates water levels optimally for native cutthroat and bull trout.

Commissioners Brodehl and Decker said they would collaborate with the governor’s office and Montana’s TMT representative to submit a formal System Operational Request for consideration. The next TMT meeting is scheduled for July 19, unless a special meeting is called sooner to discuss the Montana proposal.