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Plan to raise Flathead Lake level torpedoed by water management team

Daily Inter Lake | July 14, 2023 1:00 PM

A regional water management team on Friday opted not to alleviate Flathead Lake’s low water level by increasing flows out of Hungry Horse Reservoir.

After deliberating for nearly two hours, members of the Columbia River Technical Management Team said the plan wouldn’t be compliant with state and federal laws, nor would it actually mitigate the negative effects of the lake being low.

The team met after Gov. Greg Gianforte formally submitted a System Operational Request on Thursday, asking the panel to consider releasing more water from Hungry Horse Dam. The Technical Management Team is an inter-agency group responsible for making recommendations on federal operations regarding dams and reservoirs.

“...Use all available data and criteria to consider releases from Hungry Horse into Flathead Lake in an amount practical and compliant with state and federal law and regulations,” Gianforte wrote in the letter.

As of July 14, Flathead Lake's surface water level was at 2,891.09 feet, nearly 2 feet below the full pool mark. Concerns have been raised about the economic impact the low water level will have this summer on lake-reliant businesses, as well as agricultural needs.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Hungry Horse Dam, brought a proposed operation to the meeting in light of the governor’s request that looked to increase releases from Hungry Horse Reservoir to target Flathead Lake being within 1.5 feet of full pool by July 31, with Hungry Horse drafting 20 feet from full.

“That’s about the most we could do,” said Joel Fenolio, the water management operations and team supervisor for the Bureau of Reclamation and a management team member.

After intensive conversation regarding the proposal, the Technical Management Team came to the conclusion that the proposed action would not only negatively impact the biological systems of the Columbia River Basin, but also is not enough to actually mitigate the low lake levels.

“1.5 feet below full doesn’t even begin to solve the problem,” Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker said.

Due to federal regulations, water must continuously flow through the lake, meaning that outflows at the SKQ Dam can’t be stopped to fill the lake. Therefore, increased outflows out of Hungry Horse had the possibility of just moving through the lake.

“One way or another, the water needs to move through Flathead Lake,” said Travis Togo with Energy Keepers, LLC., the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes corporation that manages the SKQ Dam.

Further, team members worried that drafting Hungry Horse Reservoir below 10 feet would exacerbate conditions next year if Montana sees another dry winter or spring. According to Fenolio, the Bureau of Recreation, most likely, wouldn’t be able to support more draft in the dam anyway.

Brian Marotz, who was the hydropower mitigation coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks before recently retiring and is a representative for Montana on the Technical Management Team, commented about the negative biological effects on the aquatic ecosystem if more water is released, where lowering or increasing flows in the river would negatively impact fisheries, specifically juvenile bull trout.

The Systems Operational Request that Gianforte sent to the Technical Management Team was different from other requests the team has received, being that it lacked information and specifics. Therefore, the team voted on the Bureau of Reclamation's proposed plan, with the majority of votes objecting.

Members of Montana’s congressional delegation expressed disapproval with the management team’s decision.

“Let’s be clear, the commissioner of Reclamation has the authority to make the executive decision and does not need to bow to the unelected bureaucrats at the TMT who care more about fish than people,” Zinke’s office said in a statement at the conclusion of the meeting. “[Reclamation] does not lack authority. The only thing they lack is leadership.”

Zinke added that Reclamation should have acted earlier, when he first raised the issue about a month ago.

“The damage would have been mitigated and the situation far less dire,” Zinke said.

Representatives from Reclamation did express during the meeting that due to federal regulations, they couldn’t release more water from Hungry Horse than what they presented to the management team.

Idaho’s Technical Management Team representative Jonathan Ebel urged Montana to learn from the situation and draft a “dry year” plan for when outflows exceed inflows.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.