A silver lining to last summer’s deficient pool levels in Flathead Lake is we have a better grasp of what’s plagued much of the rest of the drought stricken West for over two decades: vanishing waters.
Amid everything else that poses a threat to this nation, the precious commodity of water was found to be the most pressing issue in 2023 for U.S. lawmakers in states where waterways are drying up at an alarming rate.
Witnessing a similar albeit less severe scenario unfold in western Montana, Rep. Ryan Zinke has become the latest member of what I’ll dub the congressional committee of commiseration, what with few available remedies at the disposal of lawmakers to counter water shortages. The congressman believes he’s found one.
Declaring the “Hungry Horse Reservoir exists for the management of water downstream, and that means Flathead Lake,” his recently introduced “Fill the Lake Act” [HB6442] calls on the Secretary of Interior to guarantee full pool levels from Bigfork to Big Arm every summer henceforth.
Doing so, Zinke says, would prevent a repeat of the dismal 2023 summer season, when one of the country’s largest freshwater lakes covering 197 square miles dropped two feet below full pool, wreaking havoc for lakeside businesses and boaters alike.
Since referred to the House Natural Resources Committee (eastern Montana Rep. Matt Rosendale is a member), it’s too early to speculate how far the one-page “Fill the Lake Act” will advance in Congress – “it’s not a difficult concept,” Zinke insists – but I’m not holding my breath.
Barely 100 words, it’s deplete of facts, recommendations and guidance with regard to any prudent future action. It similarly disregards the purpose and legal obligations of the Hungry Horse Dam, which are far above the Interior Secretary’s pay grade.
I can already hear the uproar if Congress ever attempted to dismantle the multifarious bureaucracy –federal agencies, other western states, and tribes well beyond Montana’s boundaries – that controls flow rates providing adequate water downstream (like it or not, Montana is a headwaters state, and our mountain snows, in good years and bad, are a major source of water hundreds of miles from here).
The bigger picture, too often ignored unfortunately, is last summer’s misery was by no means confined to Flathead Lake. Historically low water levels were recorded throughout northwest Montana due to drought, below average snowpack, and downright balmy weather.
Climate change, in other words.
Kalispell in 2023 saw 76 days where temperatures reached 80 to 100 degrees, while the county seat last winter measured a total of 22.9 inches of snow.
As a result, summer flows in all three forks of the Flathead River were one-third of normal, with heat-induced stress impacting cold-water fish from the Swan River in the east to the Thompson River in the west (a warning went out this year that native bull trout, already threatened, require colder water to survive).
Simultaneously, the Flathead’s expanding population and bustling tourism is putting unprecedented demands on municipal groundwater sources and reservoirs.
This past summer, mandatory and voluntary water restrictions were in effect from Whitefish to Kalispell to Polson (it’s reached a point in Bozeman where city officials last year adopted “permanent” outdoor watering restrictions “on a go-forward basis, every year, regardless of season.”
In Helena, meanwhile, legislators are busy educating themselves on water availability, usage, shortages and preservation. At one of two meetings last week, the Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee, co-convened as the Drought Task Force, unveiled a new “Montana Drought Management Plan.” While Montana’s database of some 400,000 “water rights” was the focal point of a subcommittee meeting of the Water Policy Interim Committee.
“As Montana continues to add population, farmers, ranchers, property owners … and households on public or private systems will depend on legal access to water,” the panel noted. “Originally filed on paper, which the state maintains amid 8,000 boxes of filings, each ‘water right’ contains critical information to … allow for proper distribution of water, especially in times of water scarcity. Montana adheres to the ‘prior appropriation’ doctrine, where the oldest water rights on a source can use water before other ‘junior’ users.”
In Kalispell, the city’s public works department is telling residents: “In big ways and small, we can all do one thing to conserve Kalispell’s limited water supply,” going so far as to suggest “if you can’t upgrade to water-saving appliances or overhaul your irrigation system, you can always take a shorter shower.”
John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.