Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Flathead Lake's low water levels are avoidable

by Lee Weber Koch
| November 11, 2023 11:00 PM

Flathead Lake is one of the most beautiful places on earth; however, this summer’s low lake levels severely impacted residents, irrigators, fishermen, recreationists, marinas, land and dock owners, and many other businesses directly or indirectly.

The economic impact is huge. So, what happened, and how can it be avoided in the future? 

One thing we can all agree on is that there was a very low snowpack last winter that resulted in record-low inflows into Flathead Lake. Despite low snowpack and other early strong indications of a drought year, the SKQ Dam (formerly Kerr Dam) drought management plan was not implemented by Energy Keepers, the current operator of the dam. Under the drought management plan, outflows through the SKQ dam could have been reduced significantly during the runoff period. 

If the drought management plan had been properly implemented, our research indicates lake levels in Flathead Lake could have been within 1 foot of full pool during the summer recreation season of June 15 to Sept. 15.

What is a drought management plan? The Department of Interior wisely anticipated drought years and required that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission operating license of the dam include Article 60 which required a drought management plan be developed and ready for drought year implementation. In 2010, the Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a 390-page document that included the drought management plan and its Environmental Impact Statement. This drought management plan enabled specific actions such as reducing the minimum outflows from the SKQ Dam during a drought; however, for unknown reasons, Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not complete the final step of a record of decision which was expected to be done shortly after the 2010 finalization of the EIS and drought management plan. 

Energy Keepers, the current licensee, has an obligation under License Article 12 to operate the dam in a manner as prescribed by FERC “for the protection of life, health, and property, and in the interest of the fullest practicable conservation and utilization of such waters for power purposes and for other beneficial public uses, including recreational purposes…”  

Although unusual, droughts have happened before in the Flathead drainage. In fact, in 2001, a previous licensee of the dam, PP&L MT, received informal approval from Interior to temporarily reduce minimum outflows through the dam which proved highly effective at that time and would have produced similar benefits this year had it been requested and implemented. For whatever reason, Energy Keepers did not request a similar outflow modification in the late spring and early summer of 2023.

The snowpack and stream flows were setting up to be a drought year early in 2023, and then it quickly became a severe drought year. Possibly Energy Keepers was caught off guard, which may be understandable. A clear requirement to be more prepared in future drought years and to utilize the drought management plan properly would be logical and appropriate. Still, Energy Keepers has strongly suggested that lake users and other stakeholders should get used to low lake levels and to take actions accordingly, such as making major modifications to existing docks, installing floating docks, etc. That is very clearly the wrong strategy. 

The drought management plan should be appropriately implemented to avoid a repeat of 2023 lake levels. Early indications are that 2024 may be another drought year, and plans to implement the drought management plan should be underway.

The National Organization to Save Flathead Lake is a nonpartisan, tax-exempt 501(c) (4) foundation that has been involved since the mid-80s trying to balance the needs of the various stakeholders and has reactivated itself this year to represent those who were impacted by the low water levels in Flathead Lake. Save Flathead Lake also provided input in 2010 during the development of the drought management plan and its EIS. 

Individually, we can’t do anything about drought conditions, but together we can protect our water resources for all stakeholders of the Flathead Valley in future years.

Lee Weber Koch is executive director of National Organization to Save Flathead Lake based in Bigfork.