Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) After a team of federal, state and tribal officials flatly rejected pressure largely from a group of Montana Republican officials this summer to raise Flathead Lake levels at the expense of Hungry Horse Reservoir, Western Montana’s Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke has introduced a bill to require Flathead Lake levels stay within a foot of full pool each summer.

Zinke’s bill, titled the “Fill the Lake Act,” would require the Interior Secretary each year to ensure Flathead Lake stays between a minimum level of 2,892 feet and a maximum level of 2,893 feet – the latter is considered to be “full pool” for the reservoir – each summer between June 15 and Sept. 15, which is prime recreation season for cabin owners and visitors.

Minimum levels would be kept up by releases from Hungry Horse Reservoir, and maximum levels would be ensured by releases out of Flathead Lake at the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam.

“This is a made in Montana solution. Fill the lake is a one-page bill – and it should be – it’s not a difficult concept,” Zinke said in a statement. “Hungry Horse Reservoir exists for the management of water downstream, and that means Flathead Lake. Unfortunately, the delays and bureaucracy created by the Department of the Interior and the technical management team made a bad situation even worse.”

The bill is the latest effort in a push by Zinke, Gianforte and some local officials that started in June to see Flathead Lake levels bumped up. Then, the lake’s surface elevation was at 2,891 feet, more than 22 inches below full pool, after the already-scant snowpack last winter melted off more quickly than normal.

At the time, the officials said the lower lake levels were affecting business and tourism because some boats could not reach their docks. U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, also wrote to the Bureau of Reclamation about concerns for farmers’ irrigation and other businesses on Flathead Lake.

By the end of August, the lake had fallen to 2,890 feet, where it remained as of Sept. 15. The lake’s level fell below 2,890 feet at the beginning of November but has since risen by about half a foot. But the lake remains at least half a foot below median levels for this time of year.

Zinke and other officials who wanted to see the lake levels boosted have been upset with the decision by the Columbia River Basin Technical Management Team, a multiagency team that advises the Bureau of Reclamation on releases from Hungry Horse Reservoir, not to boost Flathead’s levels at the expense of Hungry Horse.

But team members vehemently disagreed with the proposal to boost lake levels, saying they would have to drop Hungry Horse another 15 feet to get Flathead Lake to where the governor and some county commissioners wanted it to be. Hungry Horse Reservoir at the time was already nearly 7 feet below its full pool at the time.

Members of the technical management team also said there could be negative impacts to protected bull trout in the Flathead River if water levels were bumped up, and voiced concerns that Hungry Horse might not refill after this winter, which is forecasted to bring a strong El Niño that historically means above-average temperatures and below-average snowpack in western Montana.

As of Thursday, Hungry Horse Reservoir remains about 3 feet below where it sat at this point last year.

Zinke said his legislation will, in the unlikely event it passes the U.S. House and Senate and is signed by President Joe Biden, remove “the ambiguity and forces the (Interior) Department and its unelected bureaucrats to do their most basic job so that Montanans don’t suffer from their mistakes again.”

Zinke was the former Interior Secretary under President Donald Trump. Zinke resigned in the midst of scandals. In his announcement of the bill, Zinke lauded and provided statements from State Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, Flathead County Commissioner Randy Brodehl, and Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker, who all backed the “fill the lake” efforts this summer. Zinke said the three spoke with business owners and residents this summer and kept his staff informed on developments.

Concerns from the federal government and technical management team in July about what were signals of an impending El Niño seem to have borne out, according to recent drought data and El Niño forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The risk of extreme warmth and dryness in Montana and the U.S. during El Niño. (Image courtesy NOAA)
The risk of extreme warmth and dryness in Montana and the U.S. during El Niño. (Image courtesy NOAA)

All of Flathead County remains in either moderate or severe drought, as does most of northwest Montana, according to this week’s update from the U.S. Drought Monitor. Much of the Hi-Line is still seeing moderate drought as well, despite improvements across the entirety of the northern part of the state over the past two months after much-needed precipitation.

The Kalispell area, for example, has seen nearly 1.7 inches of precipitation more than normal already this month, but remains nearly 2.5 inches below normal for annual precipitation through mid-November.

Across Montana, the state saw above average temperatures from August through October, but the period was also in the top quarter of total precipitation for those months compared to the past 129 years.

And while current forecasts from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center show temperatures should be about normal for December in Montana, NOAA climatologists on Thursday said they were confident a strong El Niño would occur this winter, which could spell more bad news for water supply in northwestern Montana.

Doug Kluck, NOAA’s Regional Climate Services Director for the region that includes Montana, presented data in a webinar Thursday showing how the temperatures and precipitation during all 29 El Niño winters that have occurred since 1950 compared to normal years and years with moderate-to-strong El Niño conditions.

In all El Niño years, Montana has seen above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation, on average. But during moderate and strong years, which this winter is predicted to be, those extremes are exacerbated, Kluck said, especially along the Continental Divide.

“Our precipitation chances, risk of dryness, is much higher in Montana and Wyoming, where we sort of think it should be with a strong and moderate El Niño,” Kluck said.

After a fairly average December, forecast models from NOAA show both above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation for most of the state from February through April, but especially in western Montana. The Climate Prediction Center is forecasting drought to persist in northwestern Montana and along the Hi-Line into the spring.

That doesn’t mean it won’t get bitterly cold or snow throughout the winter, Kluck said, but when considering the winter as a whole, Montanans should expect what typically occurs during El Niño winters here historically.

“Precipitation-wise, we’re pretty close to what we would think would be typical for an El Niño,” he said. “I guess I hope we’re wrong in some cases there. We obviously need a good snowpack in the mountains of the Northern Rockies.”