It may have been a wet winter, but water levels are dropping quickly in the Flathead River Basin. And two of Montana's Congressmen want more water released from behind Hungry Horse Dam to keep Flathead Lake from hitting a record low level.

The appeal comes after the latest forecasts show that the streamflow on the Flathead River has fallen to just 40% of the average and could drop to just 36% by mid-summer.

Congressman Ryan Zinke and Senator Steve Daines say that would create tremendous problems for tourism, property owners, and wildlife.

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Problems stem from an early snowmelt

Forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service were already warning of problems in April, when forecasters reported that, while it was a cold winter, most of the storms had been south of Northwest Montana. That left the Flathead with just 80% of the normal snowpack.

But when temperatures warmed suddenly in May, much of the snow melted out. By June 1st, surveys showed the "snow water equivalent" had plummeted to far less than 50%. And the wet weather in June is too late in the season to help much with summer runoff.

NRCS graphic
NRCS graphic

Zinke and Daines want more BLM water released

In a letter to Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Toulon this week, Zinke and Daines appealed for BLM to release more water from Hungry Horse Reservoir to stabilize the water levels in Flathead Lake, and keep it from reaching "historically low pool levels."

Hungry Horse Reservoir; Dennis Bragg photo
Hungry Horse Reservoir; Dennis Bragg photo

The Congressmen argue the forecasted 18-inch drop in lake levels "has to potential to create extremely adverse environmental, economic and safety ramifications for the great Flathead Lake Community." They say that could impact tourism, damage docks, and infrastructure, and create a "public safety hazard" with submerged hazards breaking the surface.

“Luckily, Reclamation has the authority, and precedence has been set, to increase flow from Hungry Horse Reservoir to stabilize Flathead Lake levels." -Rep. Ryan Zinke (R)

The statement notes the tribally-owned SKQ Dam already decreased the lake outflow to minimum streamflow for the lower Flathead. But without more water coming into the lake, the pair say the lake could be a foot-and-a-half below full pool in July.

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