County Commissioners Seek Disaster Declaration to Offset Economic Losses on Flathead Lake

Declaration could free up financial assistance for business owners affected by historic low water levels in the Flathead Valley; Rosendale is latest federal delegate to ask for Hungry Horse Reservoir release

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

The Flathead County Commissioners on July 24 requested Gov. Greg Gianforte issue a disaster declaration for both Flathead and Lake counties to alleviate the economic impacts of Flathead Lake’s historic low water levels.

As of Monday afternoon, Flathead Lake’s surface elevation was 2890.86 feet, more than two feet below the lake’s full pool level, according to U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) data. The low lake levels have forced boat owners to pull watercraft from the lake and closed down some marina services while the greater region’s low water levels have impacted agricultural businesses.

Calling the regional impacts “catastrophic,” the commissioners described a disaster declaration as the first step toward offsetting the economic losses.

“No relief is available without a State Disaster Declaration, which could free up lower-interest monies for our farms and businesses to stay viable as they plan for the future,” the letter states. “We implore you to consider this option as we continue to see businesses struggle without relief.” Montana has been under a statewide drought emergency since 2021.

Earlier this year, the commissioners joined several elected officials requesting federal intervention once Flathead Lake’s levels began a precipitous decline. The commissioners, along with Gianforte and members of the state’s congressional delegation, asked for the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to consider releasing additional water from Hungry Horse Reservoir to increase the lake levels, an option that was rejected by the Bureau at the recommendation of an interagency advisory group.

The commissioners’ letter to the governor referenced instances in which releases from Hungry Horse Reservoir were used to mitigate Flathead Lake levels during low water years; however, such a mitigation strategy has been adopted only once to increase water levels in the Columbia River Basin to aid juvenile salmon swimming toward the ocean, according to BOR documents. During low-water years, the BOR targets a Hungry Horse Reservoir level of 20 feet below full pool by the end of August, while ensuring that the Flathead River near Columbia Falls maintains minimum flows established in the 2020 Columbia River System Biological Opinion (BiOp), a document that prioritizes the health of endangered and threatened fish species, such as the native bull trout in the Flathead River. Increasing river levels in the middle of the summer or letting them drop too low during the fall can significantly impact the trout’s habitat and food web, according to researchers with the USGS.

During a July 14 meeting of the Columbia River Technical Management Team (TMT), the interagency group that makes operational recommendations for the region’s 14 federal hydropower dam projects, an official request from Gianforte to release water from Hungry Horse Dam was discussed and dismissed. Team members established that the amount of water they could release, without jeopardizing required minimum flows along the Flathead River later in the year, was insufficient to alleviate the Flathead Lake levels, and additionally raised concerns over the ability to refill Hungry Horse Reservoir next year.

The only possible option discussed was a plan to bring the lake level to within 18 inches of full pool, which Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl said was inadequate. Representatives from BOR explained that to increase Flathead Lake levels by just 6 inches would require drawing down Hungry Horse Reservoir roughly 5 feet, pushing up against the 20-foot target and risking river levels on the Flathead River dropping below the federally allowed minimums.

Brodehl told the Beacon that while the county government does not intend to ask for any financial relief from the state, he hopes a disaster declaration will provide options for the county’s agricultural producers and all recreation-based businesses that depend on adequate water levels in Flathead Lake.

The commissioners request of the Governor came just days after U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., sent a letter on July 21 to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton requesting her agency reconsider the decision not to release more water from Hungry Horse Reservoir.

Rosendale was the only member of Montana’s congressional delegation who did not initially lobby federal officials on behalf of the state — his district comprises the eastern side of Montana, while Rep. Ryan Zinke, also a Republican, represents the Flathead Valley.

“The economic consequences of this low water level will be far-reaching, resulting in millions of dollars of infrastructure damage to docks and piers and the potential for boating accidents and injuries due to the low water levels,” Rosendale wrote. “Simply put, we must value our citizens’ livelihoods over potential harm to the fish.”

As with the commissioners’ letter, Rosendale referenced a drought situation in 2001 when the BOR “made a similar move” following a drop in Flathead’s water level.

However, that augmentation never happened, according to minutes from the TMT’s 2001 meetings. That summer, Montana’s congressional delegation had also received “a lot of pressure from local residents” to achieve recreational levels on Flathead Lake, which was 1.8 feet below full pool in mid-July. Then-U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns had been in discussions with the Secretary of the Interior, and a proposal was developed to increase the discharge at Hungry Horse to add 6 inches of water to Flathead Lake.

“Frankly, I would be very surprised if the Bureau is willing to approve that request,” one TMT member stated in a July 11 meeting. Another pointed out that the 20-foot draft target of Hungry Horse as spelled out in the biological opinion is “intended to help anadromous fish in the Lower Columbia, not local recreators.”

The proposal to fill Flathead Lake was never again brought up with the TMT in 2001, and the only increase in water from Hungry Horse later that year was done to maintain minimum flows along the main stem Flathead River.

This story has been updated to note that the state has been under a statewide drought emergency declaration since July of 2021.