As record-low streamflows in the Flathead River basin last summer led to a rapidly decreasing surface level of Flathead Lake, local property owners began filing complaints with the federal commission that permits the Séliš Ksanka QÍispé (SKQ) Dam. Many complaints alleged that Energy Keepers Inc., the corporation that owns and operates SKQ Dam, was violating its federal license by allowing the lake level to drop more than two feet below its full pool elevation, affecting “recreational opportunities and enjoyment of Flathead Lake.”
Following 25 complaints from individual landowners and local government officials, as well as the National Organization to Save Flathead Lake, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) reviewed the dam’s 2023 operations, and in a Feb. 5 filing concluded that Energy Keepers had not violated their duties to regulate the lake’s water levels.
“Although the summer of 2023 brought a unique set of circumstances to the project, you fully operated your project in compliance with your license,” the filing stated.
Part of a family of corporations set up by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (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 a full pool elevation of roughly 2,893 feet by June 12. The goal is to then operate in the full-pool range through Labor Day, according to Energy Keepers CEO Brian Lipscomb, before lowering the levels in October to mitigate erosion from fall storms. However, there is no legal obligation to maintain a full pool in the license.
In 2023, a low snowpack, followed by a rapid melt out and regional drought conditions led to a scenario where full-pool elevation wasn’t feasible, according to Lipscomb. The dam operators began refilling the lake a full six weeks early in order to capture the mountain runoff as forecasts indicated record low lake levels on deck for the summer.
“In 74 years of record keeping, this is a new record low for water supply coming into the lake,” Lipscomb told members of the Montana legislature’s Water Policy Interim Committee last July. “We identified this early. We saw it right out of the blocks.”
Energy Keepers filled the lake 2 feet above normal by May 30 to offset the expected drought conditions, but those proactive measures were not enough to account for diminished inflows throughout the summer.
On the other side of the dam, the FERC license mandates a minimum discharge from the dam into the lower Flathead River during each portion of the year to maintain habitat for fisheries. As water supply forecasts for the summer came in lower than expected, SKQ operators decreased lake outflow to required minimums beginning June 3. Deviations from these required minimums are only temporarily allowed for “operating emergencies beyond your control, or for short periods upon written approval from the Secretary of the Interior.”
Many complainants over the dam’s operations stated that Energy Keepers should have requested a deviation and chosen to prioritize lake recreation over downstream flow rates for fish and wildlife. In that vein, the National Organization to Save Flathead Lake filed a petition to FERC requesting Energy Keepers implement a drought management plan that was drafted in 2002 but never formally adopted by the Interior Department. Under the plan, dam operators could favor holding lake levels stable at the expense of downstream flows.
Responding to the petition, attorneys for Energy Keepers stated the draft drought management plan is out of date, doesn’t consider recent climate change science, and is ultimately unnecessary since the dam has been managed within the parameters of its license, even during years of drought. They also cited an Interior Department objection to favoring lake levels over stream flows.
“Flathead Lake serves as a venue for myriad public and private recreation activities, both in the lake and ashore. Recreational opportunities include boating, fishing, hunting, trapping, camping, picnicking, and sightseeing, and, in the winter, ice-fishing, cross country skiing, ice skating, and snowmobiling,” the Energy Keepers filing states. “All of these recreational interests are served regardless of whether the lake is maintained at [full-pool level.]”
The FERC Analysis of the 2023 operations concluded that Energy Keepers filed monthly water reports indicating the low forecasted water supply, engaged the public through social media posts and media interviews to explain the situation and its underlying factors, and successfully “managed the lake levels to balance the license requirements for lake levels, drought management, flood control, recreation, and minimum flows to protect aquatic species downstream of the project.”
“Although the lake levels were lower than “usual” in June-August, you still maintained compliance with your required lake elevation and minimum flows,” the analysis states. FERC staff added that there is overwhelming public interest in Flathead Lake recreation, and recommended Energy Keepers continue regularly informing the local community of the hydrologic situation going forward.
“I hope that this gets the community to put this part of the conversation behind us, so we can have a serious conversation about what we all have to do to be resilient in the face of what’s coming at us,” Lipscomb said on Wednesday. “People need to know that sacrificing resources to provide boat storage isn’t the right answer.”
According to the latest water supply data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, snowpack in the Flathead River basin is just 66% of the 30-year average — at this point last year, snowpack was 90%.
“If we continue on the current trajectory, we’re going to end up way worse [than last year],” Lipscomb said. “We just won’t have much bank to draw from. We’ll get the lake full, but after that, if it’s a dry summer again, we’ll end up in the same place.”
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