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Montana legislative committee gets update on Flathead Lake level

Flathead Lake Boat
Posted at 9:33 PM, Jul 24, 2023

HELENA — On Monday, Montana lawmakers heard that Flathead Lake’s unusually low water levels come after a challenging combination of conditions – and leaders have been trying to prepare for it for months.

The Water Policy Interim Committee held its first meeting of the year at the State Capitol. During that meeting, they heard from Brian Lipscomb, CEO of Energy Keepers, Inc. – a corporation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which operates the Selis Ksanka Qlispe, or SKQ, Dam.

The dam, near Polson, controls the outflows from Flathead Lake and essentially manages the top ten feet of the lake level.

Lipscomb says, this year, they’ve had to contend with an unusually dry winter and a sudden warmup in May that led to quick snowmelt and runoff. He said they usually allow the lake to reach its lowest point in the middle of April, to protect against flooding when the spring runoff arrives. However, this year, knowing they would need to collect as much water as possible, they asked their federal partners to let them start refilling the lake in March – six weeks early.

The dam has a federal license that requires it to maintain minimum outflows. Lipscomb said, since June, the water flowing into the lake from upstream has been less than that minimum.

“When you have the minimum inflows that are less than outflows, the giant bathtub starts to go down – and that's exactly what has happened,” he said.

Currently, the lake level is about two feet below “full pool” – the standard maximum level. Lipscomb said they would ordinarily be within one foot of full pool until Labor Day.

It’s a major change from last year, when Lipscomb said the lake actually filled above full pool on its own for the first time in decades, because of strong inflows. He said the rivers that feed into Flathead Lake play a key role.

“Today, for example, we could get a great rainstorm, but we're so dry, if it doesn't materialize in the river, it doesn't help us,” he said. “We're praying for rain, we'll take it, but I don't know if it would help us much until we get a good month-long worth of moisture.”

A number of elected leaders in Montana have suggested that more water could be released from Hungry Horse Reservoir to increase flows into Flathead Lake, saying the low levels are having an impact on neighboring communities and businesses. Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office asked an interagency management team to look into releasing more water, but they decided against it, citing possible ecological impacts and a need for more data.

During Monday’s meeting, the Water Policy Interim Committee also got an update on the state’s drought status from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Michael Downey, DNRC’s water planning section supervisor, said parts of northwestern Montana are in severe drought, and conditions are worsening there and along the Hi-Line. However, he said the drought is not as serious as it was in central Montana this time last year.

“Things did well early, and we’re reaping the benefit of that now,” said Downey.

DNRC also provided an update on the new statewide drought management plan, which they’re currently taking public comment on. The state’s previous plan dated back to 1995, and leaders say this will improve monitoring and planning for drought resilience.

If you want to read and comment on the new drought management plan, you can find it at mtdroughtinfo.org.