Flathead Lake’s water level is causing concern among local businesses in Montana as well as politicians and parks organizations.
National attention has turned to lake levels in recent months after Lake Mead and Lake Powell battled severe drought that threatened dead pool levels, when water drops so low it can’t flow downstream. Although the two lakes are recovering after an above-average snowfall and a wet winter, the lake further north in Montana is battling its own water level problem.
Flathead Lake levels have been steadily declining since June 30, and on Thursday the levels fell below 2,891.5 feet, a record low by 6 inches. A water level chart shows the lake is more than a foot lower than 2022 and 2021 levels. While 2022 and 2021 water levels remained mostly steady throughout the summer months, 2023 levels are showing a concerning trend as they continue to fall.
Multiple weather-related events have contributed to the lake’s falling levels, including below-average snowfall, unseasonably warm conditions in the spring and below-average rainfall during the summer.
AccuWeather senior meteorologist Brian Wimer said the lake is at a historical record low for July.
Wimer told Newsweek that snowfall was skewed throughout the winter. Much of the snow fell during the first half of the winter, with the second half bringing below-average snowfall. Winter was followed by unseasonably warm conditions in April and May, which caused snow to melt faster than usual.
“So the runoff occurred from the snowmelt earlier than usual and didn’t continue to feed into the lake later in the spring and early summer, like often is the case,” Wimer said.
Below-average rainfall has also negatively affected the lake’s water level. Rainfall is 60 percent of the normal amount for the season.
The lake’s level is expected to continue dropping for the rest of the summer. On July Thursday, Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, cited this concern when he sent a letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation about the lake’s low levels.
“Flathead Lake’s water levels continue to rapidly decline with reports suggesting that the lake could drop to as much as 22 inches below pool levels in the coming days,” Tester wrote. “This lack of water is a direct threat to public safety, small businesses and local farmers.”
Tester urged the bureau to act quickly.
Much of his letter also mentioned the concerns of Montana small-business owners, such as farmers who require the water to irrigate their crops and marina owners who are unable to keep boats in the water at such low levels. The hospitality industry has also been affected.
“These agriculture and outdoor recreation jobs are the backbone of Montana’s economy, which is why it is critically important to act,” Tester wrote.
Despite the ominous outlook, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department spokesperson told Newsweek that “water managers and dam operators across the West are working to maintain healthy streamflow and lake and reservoir levels in the midst of extreme drought conditions, earlier than normal spring runoffs and warm spring weather.”
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