Guest Column

Concerned About Flathead Lake Levels this Summer? You Should be!

Will your business, land, or crops be impacted again?

By Bob Storer

Last summer, I was lucky. I took my boat out a month early to ensure I could.  Will history repeat itself this summer? No one can accurately predict the weather. And some folks around here do not believe in climate change. If you want to know if our climate is changing – ask your local farmer! You do not need to be a scientist or a conspiracy theorist. If you want a few facts about our local climate conditions, current lake and reservoir levels, and pending concerns, please read on. 

According to the USDA Drought Monitor, most of Montana is currently in either abnormally dry, moderate, or severe drought. Most of western Flathead County is in severe drought. Our current snowpack is around 75% of the median snow water equivalent (SWE). SWE determines how much water the snowpack contains. This helps water and resource managers plan for water use. Last year at this time our snowpack stood at 95%. In the Flathead Basin there are currently 14 snow monitoring sites that range in elevation between 4,300 and 7,400 feet. Current SWE ranges between 3.9 to 35.1 inches. There is enough snow melt in the basin that will begin usually in mid-April to fill the lake. We have less than two weeks to make up for this lack of snowpack, and as National Weather Service personnel and other experts have told us we will not make it. What will spring temperatures bring and what will May and June (typically our wettest months) precipitation be? 

The current Flathead Lake level elevation is around 2,885 or 8 feet below full pool. The median lake level for this time of year (based on the records of 2000 to 2023), is 0.45 feet below this current 8-foot level. We can all recall last year when we had a very warm and wet spring that melted all the snow in a few short days. The lake was filled early and the drought conditions that followed left an unprecedented low lake level (almost 3 feet) below full pool that resulted in private boat docks that were inaccessible, swimming and boating was hazardous, and businesses were impacted, resulting in millions of lost revenue and recreational opportunities. 

Fast forward to today. Energy Keepers Inc. is a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) wholly owned and independent power producer. It operates the Se’lis Ksanka Qlispe’ (formerly Kerr) dam that controls the lake level and outflow of the lake. CSKT Energy Keepers, Inc. has a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license that regulates their operations, maintenance, mitigation measures, and stipulates the lake level must be a certain level at a certain time. The FERC license also requires that they meet minimum instream flows downstream of the dam. After many complaints were sent to FERC in 2023 concerning the low lake levels, FERC issued a letter to Energy Keepers, Inc. in February 2024 that said it was following its operational requirements of the license.  It is a complicated basin that is the headwaters of the Columbia River drainage basin and includes Hungry Horse Dam and reservoir that is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Currently, Hungry Horse is down 26 feet from full pool and the discharge from Hungry Horse is around 800 cubic feet per second (cfs). 

Minimum instream flows to be released downstream from a dam are important for a whole host of beneficial uses including but not limited to fisheries, water quality, habitat, irrigation, wildlife, navigation, groundwater recharge, and the scenic/aesthetics of natural settings. Energy Keepers, Inc. minimum instream flows in its FERC license are 3,200 cfs from Aug. 1 – Apr. 15, and then ramps up from 5,000 to 12,700 cfs through June. Minimum flows from July 1-15 are reduced from 12,700 to 6,400 cfs, and July 16-31 are reduced from 6,400 to 3,200 cfs. If Energy Keepers, Inc. is keeping to the requirements of their FERC license, then why did they lower Flathead Lake 1 foot from 2,886 to 2,885 feet during most of March?  During March 4-29, the outflow (Flathead River at Polson) was approximately 7,500 cfs. During this period, Flathead River at Columbia Falls was between 3,400 – 4,000 cfs. Was this a poor management decision or simply greedy power production? Knowing the conditions in the watershed why would they continue to lower the lake 1 foot?   

Energy Keepers, Inc. has noted that watershed conditions in the future will look different with climate change, and that us stakeholders will have to adjust. The stakeholders of Flathead Lake are a great deal more than a few rich lakeside owners as Energy Keepers, Inc. has also implied. They will have to do more than develop a new Drought Plan and hire a public relations officer. Who will review and approve their Drought Plan? Will FERC send out a public notice for all stakeholders to get a look? CSKT was somehow able to purchase the dam very inexpensively and is making millions monthly on power production. Its focus seems to be on power production whether we are flooding or in drought mode.  With a changing climate including warmer winters, less snowfall, earlier runoff and a much different hydrograph will we ever have a normal full pool lake level? History is poised to repeat itself this year.   

Changes to CSKT Energy Keepers, Inc. FERC license need to be made. But can they be formulated and done in a timely fashion? I doubt it. A new FERC license is also called relicense, authorizes the continued operation of an existing (previously licensed) project, and the license term may be 30 to 50 years! The most recent license period for CSKT started in 1985. FERC has issued nine orders since 1985 that have created new text for the license. There will be many changes throughout the Flathead watershed during the next 50 years. Who has the political will to require needed changes to the FERC license? It will take more than a few bureaucrats yelling and screaming and sending letters. All stakeholders must get involved and have a represented voice at the table. Does anyone think this is doable? Will Energy Keepers, Inc. be as concerned about lake levels as they prioritize other dam owner operator goals and benefits of their project? Do not count on it. Flood control is a significant concern. A balancing is required to draw down the lake to allow room for spring runoff and implement best practices and adaptive management techniques to be able to maintain full pool or close to it during the recreational summer months.   

Will your dock be high and dry this summer and beyond?  Will your business, land, or crops be impacted again? How many recreational opportunities will be lost? How low will the lake level go?  I do not envy their new public relations person.  I would imagine he would be putting in a great deal of overtime. Now is the time for transparency. Why did the lake drop 1 foot in March with more than twice the outflow as required for minimum instream flows in the FERC license? Is this their new normal? If it is, we are going to need a bunch of new public boat launches around the lake. And they will need to be designed with a minimum of a 3-foot drop from full pool. Pray for snow? Nope too late, get the Rain Gods to look favorably on us. Only a cool, wet spring will save our lake levels. 

Bob Storer lives in Bigfork.