Flathead Beacon: Energy Keepers Receive Additional Variance for Flathead Lake Levels; Tester Calls for ‘Immediate Action’

by Micah Drew

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will allow for a higher lake level during the month of May to increase chances for a full refill this summer

Energy Keepers Inc. has coordinated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fill Flathead Lake 2 feet higher than normal by the end of May, according to the latest update provided by the tribally owned corporation that manages the dam at the south end of Flathead Lake.

Under normal conditions, the federal license for Séliš Ksanka Ql̓ispe̓ (SKQ) dam requires the lake be brought down to its lowest level of 2,883 feet during April to provide flood risk management during spring runoff.

Due to the persistent dry conditions in the Flathead River watershed, Energy Keepers, which is owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), coordinated with the Army Corps earlier this year to raise the low-pool level to an elevation of 2,885 feet by April 15. The next lake elevation benchmark under the license is a maximum water level of 2,890 by May 31; however, decreasing water supply forecasts for the summer prompted Energy Keepers to request and receive another deviation that will allow them to fill the lake up to 2,892 feet at the end of May.

According to an Energy Keepers press release earlier this week, the deviations will improve the likelihood of refilling the lake’s top foot in June, without removing the flood management safety net.

Water supply forecasts for the region continue to come in below average. Snowpack levels in April were at 76% of the 20-year average, according to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Precipitation in the Flathead River Basin was well below normal in early winter, with monthly accumulations of just 48% and 76% of normal in October and December, respectively. February provided a boost to the water supply, delivering 116% of normal precipitation. But it “wasn’t enough to buffer” the early-season deficit, said Eric Larson, an NRCS hydrologist.

Energy Keepers pointed to the the latest water supply forecasts for the Flathead River near SKQ Dam from NOAA’s Northwest River Forecast Center which show April through September streamflows are predicted to be around 76% of normal.

“Staff forecasters deal with large amounts of uncertainty and imperfect information tied to snowpack, temperatures, weather, snowpack density, streamflows and more. By seeing the ever-changing variables, it’s a way to better understand what it takes to operate a hydroelectric facility,” the release states.            

To provide additional transparency about the operations of SKQ dam, following last summer’s record low lake levels, EKI staff have begun posting weekly range of forecast updates, which includes a graphic indicating the possible lake elevation range for the summer recreational season, based on a variety of factors. The federal operating license allows EKI to control the top 10 feet of Flathead Lake, with a maximum pool level of 2,893 allowed around June 15.

On April 30, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sent a letter to the Columbia River Technical Management Team (TMT), requesting “immediate action” on Flathead Lake levels.            

“Last year, the Flathead and Clark Fork basins in western Montana experienced severe drought conditions resulting in significant impacts across the region including historically low water levels in Flathead Lake. A lesson learned from 2023 is action must be taken early to try to mitigate the worst case scenarios when summer months arrive. As such, I encourage the TMT to take action now on the summer draft limits to put the region in the best possible position to manage the drought,” Tester wrote.

The TMT, made up of representatives from four states, five federal agencies and six tribal nations, coordinates operations of several dozen federal dams throughout the Pacific Northwest, prioritizing fish and wildlife above other system benefits. The TMT makes operational recommendations to the action agencies that control federal dams, including the Bureau of Reclamation-operated Hungry Horse Dam.

Tester specifically drew attention to Hungry Horse operations, asking for the TMT to pay close attention to upcoming drought forecasts and set summer draft limits accordingly to put the Flathead River Basin in the best position to mitigate drought conditions throughout the summer.

“All of us in Montana want to see Flathead Lake at or near full pool during the summer months,” he wrote. “Montanans have an opportunity here to work together to achieve the best possible results.”