The signs of drought in northwest Montana have been — at least until now — subtle. There are the yellowed lawns of less image-conscious residents in Columbia Falls. The spring wheat crop in Creston is a little shorter than it normally would be this time of year. And in front of the Swan Lake Ranger District office in Bigfork, a sign featuring Smokey Bear warns local residents that the fire danger is now “High.”

But perhaps the most stark reminder that much of northwest Montana is now in either “moderate” or “severe” drought is the empty boat docks along the shores of Flathead Lake. 

In the last month, Flathead Lake has dropped more than a foot, and by July 12 it is expected to be 22 inches below full pool, the reservoir’s normal operating level in summer. In an area heavily reliant on tourism, the drop has frustrated people who make their livelihood on the water and some business owners are worried they’re going to have to lay workers off before the summer is over.

But the manager of the dam at the south end of Flathead Lake that controls the level said little can be done about a drought that is starting to impact more than just the level of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. 

The spring wheat crop is expected to be less fruitful this summer after a particularly dry spring in the Flathead Valley. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP.

“It’s a dire situation,” said Brian Lipscomb, CEO of Energy Keepers Inc., the company that manages Séliš Ksanka QÍispé Dam (formally Kerr Dam) for its owner, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Lipscomb attributes the historically low water level for this time of year to a less-than-stellar snowpack that melted early thanks to a burst of warm weather in the spring. Northwest Montana also got little rain in the last few months, and, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, January to May 2023 was the fifth driest start to the year in Flathead County since it started keeping records 129 years ago. Streamflows are expected to stay low in the coming weeks with July’s volume forecast to be 36% of average. 

Flathead Lake usually starts the year at its lowest level, approximately 2,884 feet datum (the standard measure to gauge water levels in lakes), and begins to fill up in April and May, hitting the full pool at 2,893 feet in June. The lake usually stays within a foot of that until after Labor Day. But this year, the lake never hit its normal full pool and began to drop again by mid-June. Lipscomb said Energy Keepers is presently releasing the minimum amount of water it legally can through the Séliš Ksanka QÍispé Dam. Those minimums are set to protect fish species downstream. 

Regardless of water levels and minimum flows, people like Joel Eddins, general manager of Flathead Harbor in Lakeside, are frustrated. Normally, July Fourth is one of the busiest days of the year for the marina, but this year there were significantly fewer boats coming in to buy gas, food and other supplies needed for a day on the lake. In fact, instead of trying to get boats into the harbor, Eddins is focused on getting them out. He said almost a third of the boat slips in the marina would be unsafe to use by the end of the week because of the dropping water level. If boats aren’t moved fast enough, they could end up stuck in the mud or damaged by rocks or the dock itself. 

Eddins said he watched the water level drop an entire inch on Independence Day alone. He believes the dam should be holding back more water and that the economy of lakeside communities depends on it, especially when the summer tourist season is already a short one. 

“We’re going to lose six figures this year; we might not break even,” he said. 

Eddins said if something doesn’t change quickly, he might not be able to keep on his regular marina employees through the end of the summer. 

Across the lake in Bigfork, Dave Roberts was also watching the water drop. Roberts manages docks for seven different homeowners associations and said he was getting a dozen calls a day from worried boat owners asking where they could store their craft. 

“We’re going to lose six figures this year; we might not break even”

Joel Eddins, general manager of Flathead Harbor in Lakeside

“It’s having a huge impact,” he said. “I mean if you have your boat in right now, you might not be able to get it out of the lake later.” 

Jim Hampton, the owner of Woods Bay Marine Service, has also been fielding calls from people wanting to have their boats taken out of the lake and put into storage early because they can no longer use their private dock. Besides boat storage, Hampton’s business does boat maintenance, but that work could dry up if people aren’t out on the water using them. Like Eddins, Hampton was also worried about how things might look for his business at the end of the summer.  

Rep. Ryan Zinke, Sen. Steve Daines and Sen. Jon Tester have all sent letters to the Bureau of Reclamation — which manages the Hungry Horse Dam and others in the Columbia River Basin — asking that more water be released down the South Fork of the Flathead River to help stabilize or increase Flathead Lake. Zinke and Daines’ letter stated that a similar move was made back in 2001 when Flathead’s water level dropped. The Flathead County commissioners also sent a letter asking for the federal government to do what it could to prevent the lake from dropping any further. 

A sign near the Swan Lake Ranger District office in Bigfork warns residents that the fire danger is high in northwest Montana. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP.

“The economic consequences could be dire,” the commissioners wrote. “Millions of dollars in infrastructure damage to docks and piers, untold numbers of boating accidents caused by hazards in previously navigable waterways, and then there are the scores of cancellations that will occur in hospitality and tourism.”

Lipscomb said sending more water through the Hungry Horse Dam could help but that it wouldn’t be enough to bring the lake back to its normal level. He also warned that people should prepare for similar summers in the future thanks to a warming climate.

“We’ll manage the water we have, but you can’t fix climate change with just two reservoirs,” he said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t think this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. I think the frequency of these types of summers will only continue.” 

“We’ll manage the water we have, but you can’t fix climate change with just two reservoirs. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I don’t think this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. I think the frequency of these types of summers will only continue.”

Brian Lipscomb, CEO of Energy Keepers Inc.

But those who make a living on the lake aren’t the only ones worried about this summer. Further up the Flathead River near Creston, Tryg Koch, owner of Heritage Custom Farming, said the drought is having a big impact on area agriculture. 

Koch said he is anticipating a canola and spring wheat crop that was half what it was a year ago. The same goes for hay. Normally, he’s able to get three tons of hay from one acre of land, but this year because of the lack of rain, he’s only getting about half of that. The drop in grain prices over the last three months, from about $9 per bushel to just over $7 a bushel, also hasn’t helped. 

“Eastern Montana had a bad drought for the last few years, so I guess it’s our turn,” he said. 

According to the National Weather Service, the Flathead Valley isn’t expecting any significant rain over the next few weeks. The consistent warm temperatures and lack of precipitation have wildland fire managers worried the area might be headed for a smoky few months. Flathead County Fire Warden Lincoln Chute said the area had 40 wildfires, mostly human-caused, start during the week before July 4. He said firefighters were able to get those out before they spread because there is still just enough moisture in the vegetation to keep the fires from growing. But that won’t last much longer, especially if the sunny weather persists. Chute said conditions are even worse further west in the Kootenai and Tobacco valleys. 

“We really need to have multi-day rain storms to get things saturated, but we just haven’t had those recently,” he said. 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at or follow him on Twitter.