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Energy Keepers acted appropriately in dealing with Flathead Lake's record low water levels, review finds

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | February 8, 2024 12:00 AM

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Monday dismissed allegations that Energy Keepers, Inc., mismanaged Flathead Lake’s SKQ Dam last summer.

In its findings, the commission stated that although 2023 brought challenging circumstances to the hydropower project, Energy Keepers operated the dam in compliance with its license.

Energy Keepers, an entity of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, oversees water flow out of the lake. After a historically dry summer in 2023 led to diminished inflows and record low water levels, concern arose among residents who questioned the dam operators’ management tactics. The National Organization to Save Flathead Lake filed a petition last year seeking the commission’s review.

In its report, the commission said it investigated complaints about how the low water level affected recreation and property owners’ general enjoyment of the lake.

“Specifically, complainants allege that private boat docks were inaccessible, swimming and boating were hazardous, and lower lake levels affected some businesses which resulted in lost income,” Kelly Houff, with FERC’s engineering resources branch, wrote in her report to Energy Keepers. “Some complainants suggested that you were not properly balancing lake levels to meet all interests of Flathead Lake, while others suggested you should not be allowed to meet minimum downstream water flows while drastically affecting the lake levels which in turn affects recreational opportunities.”

Complaints also centered on a lack of opportunity for public input on how the dam was being operated.

The commission found that while Flathead Lake’s water levels were 2-3 feet below full pool at times, they were within the elevation required by Energy Keepers’ license. Further, the public hearing provision of the license was not triggered because the energy commission did not require a deviation from license requirements. 

“In addition, you managed the lake levels to balance the license requirements for lake levels, drought management, flood control, recreation and minimum flows to protect aquatic species downstream of the project,” Houff wrote to Energy Keepers. “Although the lake levels were lower than ‘usual’ in June-August, you still maintained compliance with your required lake elevation and minimum flows, and you coordinated with the Corps for drought management.”

Further, no public safety incidents were reported to the commission, she added.

Houff also noted that Energy Keepers took steps to inform property owners and the public of the potential for low water levels beginning in May 2023.

In an interview on Wednesday, Energy Keepers CEO Brian Lipscomb said the commission’s findings were “spot on.”

Lipscomb said the challenging hydrologic conditions last summer led to intense public criticism, “with some organizations providing inaccurate or incomplete information.”

According to Lipscomb, much of the criticism felt like people were attempting to discredit the tribes.

“They misportray the facts, so that's out there,” he told the Inter Lake. “You’d be surprised how many people I’d talk to who had read things and think it's correct besides the myriad of information that we have put out.”

Representatives from the National Organization to Save Flathead Lake were not available for comment Wednesday.

The regulatory commission also responded to a congressional inquiry from U.S. Rep. Matt Rosendale, who asked for information regarding Energy Keepers’ energy sales in 2023. According to the commission, the dam operator’s energy sales last year were the lowest on record compared to historic five- and 10-year averages. 

U.S. REP. Ryan Zinke last fall introduced the “Fill the Lake Act,” which would direct the Interior Department to maintain Flathead Lake’s water levels between 2,892 and 2,893 feet from June 15 to Sept. 15. The bill mandates that those levels be reached by providing water from Hungry Horse Reservoir and by releasing excess water downstream.

In reacting to the commission’s findings, Zinke’s staff on Wednesday referenced a 2010 draft Drought Management Plan by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that lays out a game plan to maintain the lake levels during a drought year. Heather Swift, a spokesperson for Zinke’s office, said a key step will be to finalize the plan so it can be enforced.

Lipscomb said Energy Keepers has not referenced the plan in the past and won’t in the future, even as it anticipates another low water supply year with mountain snowpack trending behind average through January.

The plan itself is nearly 20 years old and outdated, Lipscomb contends. 

“Telling us to implement something that is currently in draft form with outdated science and outdated climate information… yeah, that is not where we’re going,” Lipscomb said. 

Heading into this summer, he said Energy Keepers anticipates doing “nothing different than last year.” 

According to Lipscomb, Energy Keepers succeed in fulfilling its duties and the commission’s findings are a stamp of approval on their dam operations.

He encouraged valley residents to approach the issue proactively. 

“If you have a home on Flathead Lake and you have infrastructure like a dock, or something that is dependent on the lake being full pool for you to use, you should adjust that,” Lipscomb said. “I understand people were frustrated ... but the situation we are facing from a climatological perspective … I have not seen these things in my lifetime.” 

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

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