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Zinke's Fill the Lake Act meets mixed reactions

by KATE HESTON
Hagadone News Network | November 24, 2023 12:00 AM

Shortly after Rep. Ryan Zinke introduced legislation aimed at keeping Flathead Lake at full pool during the height of summer, operators of the SKQ Dam called the congressman’s proposal unworkable.

“It really is not something in my mind that is doable,” said Brian Lipscomb, CEO of Energy Keepers, Inc., which operates the SKQ Dam on the southern end of Flathead Lake for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The Fill the Lake Act, introduced into the House of Representatives on Nov. 15, would direct the Interior Department to maintain water levels in the lake between 2,892 and 2,893 feet from June 15 to Sept. 15. Zinke crafted the legislation following a summer that saw Flathead Lake fall more than two feet below full pool. 

As frustration with the lowered water level grew during the summer, Zinke and other members of Montana’s congressional delegation sought to increase the flow of water from the Hungry Horse Reservoir, which is maintained by the Hungry Horse Dam and overseen by the Bureau of Reclamation, a part of the Interior Department.

The Columbia Basin Technical Management Team, which had the authority to act on the request, declined to take action in July. The body found that releasing more water from the reservoir would inadvertently affect ecosystems, economies and industries that depend on the Flathead River. The reservoir was 5 to 6 feet lower than the previous year during the height of summer.

“That decision [to fill the lake] should have been made a lot earlier,” Zinke told the Inter Lake last week.

Zinke’s bill mandates that the proper lake levels will be reached “by providing the water from Hungry Horse Reservoir” and by “releasing excess water downstream.” 

LIPSCOMB SAID Mother Nature, not the secretary of the Interior, is ultimately in charge of the lake’s water levels. 

This past winter saw lower than normal mountain snowpack. The snowfall that the region did see in the spring melted rapidly due to warm temperatures and rain in May.

The fast snowmelt caused Flathead Lake to reach near full pool on June 13, nearly two weeks earlier than last season, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. After that date, inflows into the lake decreased to where water was exiting it more quickly than was coming into it. 

Water levels in the lake are not decided by dam management, they are decided by external factors like snowpack moisture, spring run off and summer precipitation, Lipscomb contends. 

“The secretary of the Interior, nor anybody, has anything to do with that. It was how nature delivered the water,” Lipscomb said. 

The Bureau of Reclamation declined to comment on Zinke’s pending legislation or if the act’s proposed levels are possible to maintain. 

Energy Keepers — and the Confederated Kootenai and Salish Tribes by extension — also earned criticism over the summer for not further slowing the release of water from the lake. Lipscomb said Energy Keepers reviewed its response during the summer and determined that it acted properly.

“It could not have been operated differently,” said Lipscomb. “Anything that would have been done to keep the lake fuller than it was would have negatively affected tribal resources.”

Those resources include downstream obligations for other watersheds, abiding by the Endangered Species Act, and producing power and revenue. The Hungry Horse Reservoir and Flathead Lake are part of a region-wide water system where water flows and decisions that occur in Northwest Montana have the potential to affect a slew of water bodies, states and regions. 

Energy Keepers also are held to the standards of federal water management plans and interagency regulations, initiating flow rates that legally need to be maintained by its license, Lipscomb said.

The minimum flows that the dam operated under later in the summer are set through section 4E of the Federal Power Act, overseen by the Department of the Interior in association with the tribes. 

Looking ahead to next year, Lipscomb said Energy Keepers “will have a plan to best protect tribal resources that we depend on in the face of uncertainty as we go into spring of 2024.”

ZACK WENZEL, owner of Blue Cat and Marina Bay Resort in Bigfork, saw boat rentals fall by more than 50% last summer. Fuel sales by the gallon plummeted 65%. The marina’s restaurant saw a significant downturn in clientele, he said. 

Wenzel said he appreciated Zinke taking action, but worried about the implications. 

“I am happy to see that someone higher up on a federal level is doing something, but it concerns me that Zinke doesn’t have a lot of faith that the lake won’t just be full next year,” he said. 

Doug Averill, of Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork and vice president of the National Organization to Fill Flathead Lake, applauded Zinke for taking into account the economic impact of last summer’s low lake level.

“We were involved in helping write that legislation” Averill said. “We think it has a good chance if the Montana delegation unanimously supports it.” 

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines also expressed concern about the lake level last spring. 

Carole James, board president of The National Organization to Fill Flathead Lake, said it is important that all Flathead Lake stakeholders are equally considered in discussions about the water level. That includes recreation, James said, which would benefit from seeing a full lake. 

Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl also welcomed Zinke’s legislation, saying it directed the Interior Department to act in the event of another year of low lake levels. 

“The act is very simple. It calls out the Department of the Interior to make this happen and gives them little in the way of options,” he said. “I think that it is critical that we move ahead with this act like it’s written.” 

It’s a little more complicated, Lipscomb said. Water flow rates in and out of the lake are set in part by conditions of the Endangered Species Act. 

“It isn’t a secretary of the Interior decision, that’s a court decision and it's mandated through the Endangered Species Act,” he said.

Low flow rates negatively affect fisheries for listed endangered species, such as native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

“The strategy and [flow management] guidelines have been in place for decades and are based on empirical data,” said Clint Muhlfield, an aquatic ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey working for the Flathead Lake Biological Station.

Darcy Thomas, president of the Flathead Audubon Society speaking personally and not on behalf of the audubon, described Zinke’s legislation as driven by the dollar and not the environment.

“It’s a shame when lake levels drop and people can’t recreate and businesses suffer financially, but it would be an even bigger mess to harm fish populations and not have enough water for agricultural purposes,” Thomas said.

On the climate front, droughts are increasing in frequency and severity, Muhlfield said. Decisions about water flows must take an uncertain future into account, he said. 

Lipscomb said that uncertainty meant that Energy Keepers would adjust as needed.

“... The beauty of Flathead Lake isn’t determined by it being full,” he said. “People need to be prepared to create some flexibility.” 

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