Continental Divides

The Elephant in the Lake

How drastically rising temperatures will further impact Flathead Lake remains to be seen

By John McCaslin

This past July, when the Columbia River Technical Management Team (TMT) rejected multiple requests from Montana leaders to replenish a miserably low Flathead Lake with additional water from the Hungry Horse Reservoir, a team member from Idaho exhorted local and state officials to prepare for subsequent dry years.

The time to prepare is now.

One of the strongest El Niño weather patterns in memory is forecast to usher in a winter season of above normal temperatures and below normal snowfall for northwest Montana, potentially resulting in the second straight year of diminished snowpack flowing into Flathead Lake and the local economy.

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center says an El Niño of this magnitude hasn’t knocked on our door since the winter of 2009-2010, when southern states shivered in cold and rapid-fire blizzards hammered the East Coast. Just under 40 inches of snow fell that winter in Kalispell, on the heels of 99.9 inches the previous season.

Consider on top of that Flathead Lake Bio Station calculations from our just concluded summer of 2023. From the start of April through June 12, “which is the period when Flathead Lake is normally filling, inflows were 78 percent of the median. However, from June 13 through August 6, inflows were only 34 percent of the median.”

All of which, and plenty more, is of concern to the Yellow Bay scientists.

“These low flow conditions are consistent with the severe drought that northwestern Montana has been experiencing in recent years,” they explain, citing one analysis showing that “low snow conditions are part of a longer-term and likely ongoing decline in snowpack in western Montana …

“Unfortunately this means that we should be prepared for more summers with low lake levels moving forward.”

There’s the preparation word again. The million-dollar question is how to prepare?

As demonstrated in July, we can’t count on dam operators above and below Flathead Lake to come to the rescue, at least not entirely. Any meager snowpack, after all, trickles into both Flathead Lake and Hungry Horse Reservoir alike.

As for the Se̓liš Ksanka Qĺispe̓ Dam to our south, inflows into Flathead Lake had dropped so much by early June 2023 that its operators were releasing the minimum amount of water allowed per the dam’s operating license.

Which for Flathead County spotlights a cruel reality: regardless of how much our economy might be suffering in a given year, mandates are in place to protect the economies, industries and ecosystems downstream – countless communities in the Columbia River drainage surviving on our sacred waters.

The bio station best describes the drainage system as a vast network of regulated rivers, lakes, dams, and other water control structures, governed by a complex system of statutory, regulatory and contractual arrangements involving federal, state, tribal and private entities.

The Hungry Horse Dam, meanwhile, might be operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, yet in coordination with the aforementioned TMT stakeholders: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State of Montana, State of Idaho, State of Washington, State of Oregon, Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, Spokane Tribe of Indians, Confederate Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Talk about a multilayered bureaucracy, with each entity having a vote on whether to increase flow rates from Hungry Horse. Which helps explain why those urgent calls from Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, et al., to open the dam’s floodgates were rebuffed.

Last month, Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl traveled to Capitol Hill to testify in support of H.R. 3200, the Gateway Community and Recreation Enhancement Act. Introduced by Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., the legislation would require the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to enhance recreational opportunities on federal lands and grant gateway communities like ours a seat at the federal decision-making table (at last glance, congressional oddsmakers give the bill an “eight percent” chance of being enacted).

Speaking about the importance of tourism for Flathead County, Brodehl asserted that the Reclamation Bureau “changed Flathead Lake water level policy without consideration of the impacts to the economies of lake communities. The bureau chose to not release enough water to keep Flathead Lake at full capacity, letting it drop 30 inches by mid-summer, exposing the lake bottom and closing marinas, stranding boats, and exposing irrigation pump intakes.

“This is something they have never done in the 50 years they have been managing the lake level by release of reservoir waters above the lake. With federal lands and water access being curtailed, our visitor numbers faded, doing significant harm to our economy, and discouraging future tourism.”

Changes have indeed occurred in the last 50 years, but rather than blaming the federal government the commissioner and other state and local officials should be targeting the proven culprit: climate change.

Temperatures in northwest Montana continue to climb, 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, with winters and springs warming the most. In fact, this state is experiencing more warming than the contiguous United States as a whole. Even more worrisome, additional warming of 4-6 degrees is expected here by 2050, according to the Montana Institute of Ecosystems.

How drastically these rising temperatures will further impact Flathead Lake, not to mention the county’s already endangered ecosystem given its accelerated population and infrastructure growth, remains to be seen.

Hopefully though with all sides working together –sooner rather than later – the first of many resolutions will be reached to alleviate a rapidly worsening crisis.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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