Continental Divides

Facts are Facts, Folks

Like it or not, the real culprit for low lake levels isn’t SKQ

By John McCaslin

Not everyone is placated after a federal agency vindicated SKQ Dam operations when Flathead Lake levels dropped several feet below full pool last summer.

Like the gentleman who summed up Uncle Sam’s findings in a single word: Bullfeathers! (Actually the singular response was more blunt than Teddy Roosevelt’s favorite euphemism, but this is a family newspaper).

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s analysis came in the wake of 25 complaints being leveled against the Polson-area dam by local landowners, businesses, and community leaders – despite SKQ owner/operator Energy Keepers Inc., going to exceptional lengths to draw as sparingly as possible from the lake without desiccating the fragile ecosystems downstream.

“Why would anyone ever trust the word of anyone from a federal agency,” a woman asked in a similar post last week, reading that Energy Keepers not only adhered to its legal responsibilities, but went the extra mile.

It’s becoming an all too familiar pattern, in Montana and throughout the nation, when people choose to reject or outright deny simple facts – proven reality – rather than confront uncomfortable truths.

“Denialism” is the word the field of psychology uses to describe the human behavior, motivated by everything from political allegiance and religious beliefs to financial distress, as occurred last summer when an untold number of Flathead Lake businesses screamed about drowning in everything except water.

One lakefront business owner, appearing before the Jan. 25, 2024 meeting of the Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee, put revenue losses for impacted businesses at a whopping $660 million. Draft minutes of the same testimony repeated the allegation that “operators of the SKQ Dam … did not properly manage the lake during the recent drought.”

So why do people deny verifiable facts?

Iain De Jong, president and CEO of the consulting firm OrgCode, recalled a training session where “one attendee was quite adamant that just because something was published in a peer-reviewed journal or had data to support it didn’t make it correct.”

Which inspired De Jong to dig deeper, because “we have to better understand why some people don’t believe the facts.”

The consultant concluded in an online post that humans “are hard-wired to have an emotional response to information quicker than our conscious thoughts. If people are presented with information that supports our pre-existing worldview or thoughts on a subject, we accept it with open arms.

“If [on the other hand] people are presented with information that challenges how we already feel about something, it is our natural human instinct to see the information as a threat. When we are threatened, as a species, we apply our fight or flight response. So, we either ignore the information or we attack the sources/reliability of the information.”

(Bullfeathers, in other words).

De Jong further pointed out that some will reject facts “because they do not believe the messenger,” be it a politician, scientist, immunologist, or journalist.

Facts also get “taken completely out of context and used in a manner to support an argument that they were never intended or designed to do. This is done entirely to support a point of view, not to be scientific at all,” he continued.

“If I asked 100 people if they would like to pay less in taxes, I would guess that most people would say yes. If it is not explained that there are budget deficits, service cuts that people depend on, crumbling infrastructure, etc., that are all paid for by taxes then they are not really taking the full picture into account.”

Like the potential consequences if, for recreational and financial purposes, Flathead Lake were kept at full pool during drought years to the detriment of aquatic life (and plenty more) downstream, including Montana’s threatened state fish, the Westslope Cutthroat Trout.

Like it or not, the real culprit for low lake levels isn’t SKQ (if you don’t believe the feds, check out the dam’s 2023 operational data) but climate change, the aforementioned “uncomfortable truth” few people are willing to confront.

Ongoing drought, warmer temperatures, low snowpack, and an early spring runoff are all to blame for what little water trickled into Flathead Lake last year.

And you’d better look now, because 2024 is shaping up to be similarly dire.

With spring arriving in just a few days, the snow-water equivalent (amount of liquid water within snowpack) at the end of February was 66 percent of normal in the Flathead River Basin (albeit up from 58 percent in January); 44 percent for Missoula and points east.  Snowfall levels across Montana are 39 percent of normal this winter.

“I hope that this [federal finding upholding SKQ’s operations] gets the community to put this part of the conversation behind us,” Energy Keepers CEO Brian Lipscomb told this newspaper last month, “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.”

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