Montana Lawmakers Get Lowdown on Flathead Lake Levels

In presentation to Water Policy Interim Committee, the SKQ Dam operator depicted a dire scenario with no relief in sight even as the state’s elected leaders renewed their calls for federal aid

By Tristan Scott
Thistle Class Association National Championship sail boat race on Flathead Lake in Somers on July 21, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last year, the Flathead Watershed and its five tributaries were so choked with snowmelt and spring moisture that Flathead Lake overfilled naturally for the first time since 1964, when historic floods devastated local communities and reset the record books. This year, dam operators responsible for controlling the outflow of Flathead Lake began refilling the basin a full six weeks early, desperately trying to capture the region’s scant mountain runoff as forecasts showed lake levels dropping to historic lows.

As those forecasts bear out with six weeks of summer still on the horizon, business owners and agricultural producers in the region are growing increasingly discouraged as elected leaders implore the federal government and an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies for relief. With none in sight, however, state policymakers are trying to gain a better understanding of the environmental factors at play, and whether they can be avoided in the future.

Enter Brian Lipscomb, executive director of Energy Keepers, Inc., a corporation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that operates the Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ (SKQ) Dam, who updated members of the Montana Legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee (WPIC) on July 24, when the group assembled for its first meeting of 2023.

“Overall, our river flows going out of the facility are at the absolute minimums per our federal license,” Lipscomb told the committee. “That’s 49% of average and it’s 36% of the flows we saw last year on the same day. So, quite a phenomenal shift from last year to this year.”

Laying out a months-long operational strategy to avoid the current scenario — a period during which Energy Keepers coordinated with the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) to forecast peak runoff and capture as much water as possible before minimizing the dam’s outflow near Polson — Lipscomb said the scheme to counterbalance the depleted inflows to Flathead Lake was insufficient. Despite receiving permission from the dam’s federal partners to start refilling the lake in March, Lipscomb said a confluence of extreme environmental conditions driven by climate change have made it impossible to offset the plummeting lake levels, which as of July 26 registered at 25 inches below full pool.

“During the first two weeks of May, we saw temperatures in the upper 80s approaching 90 degrees and we saw our snowpack set a new record for disappearing out of the mountains,” Lipscomb said. “When you have minimum inflows that are less than your outflows, the giant bathtub starts to go down. And that is exactly what’s happened.”

Part of a family of corporations set up by CSKT to earn revenue in lieu of taxes to fund tribal services, Energy Keepers is responsible for controlling the top 10 feet of Flathead Lake, which amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet of water storage. Under normal operating procedures, the dam-controlled lake drops to its lowest point by April 15 to provide flood control across the region, then rises to 3 feet from full pool by Memorial Day, hitting full pool by June 12. The goal is to then operate in the full-pool range through Labor Day, Lipscomb said, before lowering the levels in October to mitigate erosion from fall storms.

This year, Energy Keepers has deviated from normal protocol every step of the way in order to offset the hydrological deficiencies, but it hasn’t been enough.

“On June 12, our levels immediately started falling, they are still falling today and they will continue to fall through Labor Day weekend,” he said.

At 26 miles long, 18 miles wide and 389 feet in the middle, Lipscomb emphasized that Energy Keepers can only control the top 10 feet of the lake.

“We don’t fill it any faster nor do we let it go down any further nor can it go down any further than it did naturally,” he said.

But that hasn’t stopped Montana’s elected leaders from seeking out alternative ways to return lake levels to normal, although so far all of their proposed strategies have been rebuffed.

The Flathead County commissioners along with Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and members of the state’s congressional delegation have asked the BOR to consider releasing additional water from Hungry Horse Reservoir to increase the lake levels, an option the agency rejected at the recommendation of an interagency advisory group, which cited consequences to aquatic habitat and other impracticalities with the proposal.

On Monday, the Flathead County commissioners requested Gianforte issue a disaster declaration for both Flathead and Lake counties to alleviate the economic impacts of Flathead Lake’s historic low water levels.

On Tuesday, Gianforte asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare 11 Montana counties including Flathead as primary natural disaster areas to relieve the economic strain of severe drought.

“It is imperative that the U.S. Department of Agriculture aid Montana communities in accessing critical resources,” the governor wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Relief is needed as swiftly as possible, particularly for our agricultural producers, who are seeing impacts to forage and stock water availability due to drought conditions and low water levels.”

Although Lipscomb’s presentation to WPIC was meant to educate and inform members about the historic conditions befalling northwest Montana’s sprawling watershed, rather than to craft solutions, some of the lawmakers wondered if a rain event could help the situation.

“We could get a great rainstorm today, but we’re so dry that if it doesn’t materialize in the river, it doesn’t help us,” Lipscomb said. “We’re praying for rain, and we’ll take it, but I don’t know if it helps us until we get a good month’s worth of moisture.”

Grasping the desperation of the situation, Rep. Kenneth Walsh, R-Twin Bridges, concluded the hearing on a sympathetic note.

“I’d hate to be in your shoes,” Walsh told Lipscomb.