Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) At the request of a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes company, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to keep more water in Flathead Lake this year.

On March 25, the Army Corps of Engineers approved a request from the CSKT Energy Keepers, Inc., to raise the spring flood level of Flathead Lake by 2 feet, which should keep more water in the lake as the summer wears on.

“By taking these actions early in the season, we increase the likelihood that Flathead Lake will reach its maximum elevation in what forecasters are predicting as another dry year,” said Brian Lipscomb, Energy Keepers CEO. “Should we experience unforeseen precipitation, then we can make further adjustments. By May, we are prepared to make further changes to standard operations depending on weather conditions.”

Usually, the Army Corps starts releasing water from the lake after April 15 to keep the surface at an elevation of 2,883 feet - designated as “full pool” to prevent spring flooding. This is part of a flood risk management plan established in 1965. However, with Montana’s low snowpack and increasing drought, it’s unlikely that flooding would happen this year.

EKI staff conduct frequent analysis and projections of hydrological conditions and predict that Flathead Lake will likely be in the 2888- to 2891-foot range at the end of May, now that more water will be kept in the lake. Flood stage is around 2,898 feet.

The Army Corps letter approving the change said, “It is expected that this relaxation would have minimal risk based on modeling an analysis of current conditions.”

Past years of drought and a hot summer caused the water level in Flathead Lake to drop to 2 feet below full pool by mid-July last year. The water around many docks was too shallow to launch larger boats, and some irrigation ditches weren’t receiving water.

Some politicians, including Montana’s governor, demanded that more water be released from Hungry Horse Reservoir upstream of Flathead Lake. But the interagency technical team that manages federal dam projects in the Columbia River Basin, including the Hungry Horse Dam, resisted political pressure, citing federal regulations and the adverse ecological impacts to the watershed.

The flows in the upper Flathead River were also below normal, causing inflows to Flathead Lake from mid-June to mid-August to be 34% of the 30-year median. One of the summer’s wildfires shut down travel around Hungry Horse Reservoir, so draining Hungry Horse could have made things worse.

Last May, snowpack totals in the northern Flathead River basins were at approximately 80% of normal. This year, they’re currently sitting at 75%, so we could see another summer of low water if something weren’t done now to keep more water in the lake.

Energy Keepers, Inc. is a federally chartered corporation created and owned by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. CSKT and Energy Keepers manage the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Project, formerly known as the Kerr Dam, 6 miles below the natural outlet of Flathead Lake on the Lower Flathead River.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at