Gov. Gianforte Formally Requests Hungry Horse Water Release

To augment historically low Flathead Lake levels, Gianforte requests a "practical" amount of water be released from Hungry Horse

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

After expressing frustration over perceived inaction by the interagency team charged with overseeing federal dam operations, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte on Thursday submitted a formal request for the release of water from Hungry Horse Reservoir to augment historically low Flathead Lake levels.

A below-average snowpack and swift spring melt-out has caused Flathead Lake’s surface level to fall below full pool to a degree not experienced in more than 80 years. The lake was sitting at 2,891.09 feet on Thursday afternoon, a full 22.92 inches before the dam-controlled lake’s full pool level, causing problems for local businesses, recreationists and the region’s agricultural industry.

Many of Montana’s elected officials, including members of the state’s congressional delegation and Flathead and Lake County commissions have requested federal solutions, including releasing water from Hungry Horse. On July 12, the Columbia River Technical Management Team (TMT), which makes recommendations about regional dam operations, met and discussed the situation at Flathead Lake, however without a formal request by a Montana representative they were unable to consider specific mitigation actions.

On Thursday, Gianforte took the additional step of formalizing the appeal when he submitted a System Operational Request (SOR).

“I submit this letter as my SOR for the TMT to use all available data and criteria to consider releases from the Hungry Horse into Flathead Lake in an amount practical and compliant with state and federal law and regulations,” Gianforte wrote on July 13. “Given time remains of the essence, I urge you to act without delay.”

The request did not specify a target surface level for Flathead Lake, but during the TMT meeting on Wednesday, Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl asked that the lake be raised by roughly 8 inches. Preliminary analysis by the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Hungry Horse Dam, showed that the reservoir would have to be drawn down 15 feet to meet that request.

The governor had previously requested an analysis of how varying volume releases from Hungry Horse would impact the reservoir’s future water supply, the ecosystem along the Flathead River and levels along Flathead Lake; however, he received only “partial, incomplete information,” according to his letter.

U.S. House Rep. Ryan Zinke and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, who were the first elected officials to request a water release from Hungry Horse, both offered prepared statements in support of the governor’s action.

“Fill the lake. I support the state’s recommendation to the TMT and Bureau of Reclamation to stabilize Flathead Lake. If the feds had taken action more than three weeks ago when lake levels were 8 inches below full pool and when Senator Daines and I first raised this issue to the Commissioner and Regional Director of Reclamation we would be in a much better situation,” Zinke said. “Unfortunately, weak leadership and robust red tape led to worsening conditions that are having dire consequences on ag and the tourism economy.”

“I commend Governor Gianforte’s work to address the situation at Flathead Lake and hope to see immediate action from the TMT. Protecting our Montana way of life will always be my top priority and I encourage the Biden administration to join us in this effort,” Daines said. “Congressman Zinke and I will continue to push for relief to the communities around Flathead Lake as well as farmers in the Flathead Basin,.”

The TMT is scheduled to meet next on July 19. As the region’s federal dams, including Hungry Horse, are managed for multiple purposes including power generation, flood control and fish restoration, a deviation from normal operations will face strict scrutiny across multiple agencies before a recommendation is made to the Bureau of Reclamation.

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