Daily Inter Lake: Tester calls for action on water levels in Flathead Lake ahead of summer

by Kate Heston

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Monday called on a federal inter-agency group charged with managing dams and reservoirs to immediately begin taking steps to avoid low water levels in Flathead Lake this summer.

“A lesson learned from 2023 is action must be taken early to try to mitigate the worst case scenarios when summer months arrive,” Tester, a Democrat, wrote in an April 29 letter to the group. “As such, I encourage the [Technical Management Team] to take action now on the summer draft limits to put the region in the best possible position to manage the drought.”

The Technical Management Team is responsible for making recommendations on federal operations regarding dams and reservoirs, like those in the Columbia River Basin, which includes the Flathead Valley. Membership includes representatives of states, including Montana, tribes and federal agencies. 

As of mid-July last year, Flathead Lake’s surface water level was at 2,891.09 feet, nearly 2 feet below the full pool mark. The low water level at the height of the summer generated frustration among shoreline property and business owners, and prompted calls for action from local, state and federal lawmakers from across the political divide. 

The management team met in July after pressure from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte and discussed available tools to raise the lake level. The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the Hungry Horse Reservoir, had proposed releasing water to raise Flathead Lake to 1.5 feet below full pool by July 31. The proposal would have seen the Hungry Horse Reservoir sink to 20 feet below full pool.

But the management team concluded that any proposed action to mitigate the low lake levels would negatively affect the biological systems of the Columbia River Basin. The body also argued that the proposal from the Bureau of Reclamation would do little to mitigate the low water level on Flathead Lake.

Tester is asking the team to give its recommendations to the Bureau of Reclamation ahead of another projected dry summer. 

“Unfortunately, the information we have now on current snowpack and forecasts suggest that drought conditions will likely persist into the summer of 2024,” Tester wrote in the letter. “That’s why acting on the May forecast is critical for Hungry Horse Project management as it is the primary storage reservoir in the upper basin.” 

Early attention to drought forecasts and planning ahead will effectively help manage the Hungry Horse Reservoir, Flathead Lake and the many interests reliant on the water system, according to Tester’s office. 

“Flathead Lake is extremely important to Montana’s residents and economy,” Tester wrote. “All of us in Montana want to see Flathead Lake at or near full pool during the summer months.”