Kerr Dam Management History & Lakers Actions
Memorandum of Understanding on Lake Levels
The Flathead Lakers were a party to amending the Memorandum of Understanding between Montana Power Company and the Army Corps of Engineers to change operational procedures at Kerr Dam, which included setting targets for achieving “full pool” summer lake levels. The targets set were 1) reaching the level of 2890 feet (elevation) by May 30, and 2) reaching 2893 feet by June 15. In practice, the lake is kept two to three inches below 2893 so that the runoff from heavy storms can be absorbed without the lake level rising above 2893, which would be a violation of the license (and cause flooding).
1990 – 1997
Kerr Dam Relicensing
The Flathead Lakers intervened in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s proceeding on the Mitigation and Management Plan for Kerr Dam (part of the 50-year relicensing of the dam). We were successful in persuading the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on the effects of Kerr Dam and its operations. The EIS:
- provided FERC and the Department of Interior with the information needed to make informed decisions on operational options,
- required FERC to identify and assess a full range of alternatives to minimize the adverse effects of dam operation; and
- allowed the public to participate in a decision of vital concern to the public.
The Lakers participated in the EIS process, commenting on the draft and the conditions imposed by the Department of Interior pursuant to Section 4(e) of the Federal Power Act. The result was a better mitigation and management plan than the one Montana Power Company (the dam's owner and operator at that time) had developed behind closed doors.
Many of the Lakers’ goals in intervening were achieved, including an open and public relicensing process. The FERC order required:
- Changing the operation of Kerr Dam from a peak load and load following* facility to a base load facility and restricting daily flow fluctuations to more closely reflect natural river flows.
- Payment by Montana Power Company of nearly $36 million to mitigate damage to fish and wildlife resources and habitat.
- Acquisition of over 3,000 acres of wildlife habitat as replacement habitat for that lost due to dam operations.
- Coordination between Kerr Dam and Hungry Horse Dam managers.
- Preparation of a Drought Management Plan to guide dam operations when severe drought makes it impossible for both lake level and river flow license requirements to be achieved.
Drought Management Plan Development
The Flathead Lakers were involved in the process of developing a Drought Management Plan (DMP). A DMP, required by the new Kerr Dam license, will determine how lake levels and river flows are managed during a serious drought. The DMP is intended to give direction to Kerr Dam management when, due to drought conditions, it is not possible to meet both the requirements in the license for specific lake levels and for river flows below the dam
We commented on the PPL Montana DMP proposal and made recommendations for improvement, including giving more attention to maintaining summer recreational lake levels during a drought by better coordination with Hungry Horse Dam operation and altering the timing of flows released from Hungry Horse Dam for downstream salmon recovery projects in the Columbia River. We urged the Department of Interior and FERC to require a thorough review of options and alternatives before approving a plan. We also submitted scoping comments for the DMP EIS process.
Draft Drought Management Plan Evironmental Impact Statement
The Flathead Lakers submitted comments on the DMP Draft EIS and participated in public hearings. We continued to ask for consideration of the cumulative impacts of the alternatives proposed, including impacts on summer recreation and winter damage to docks, as well as requesting an analysis of the role water stored at Hungry Horse Reservoir could play in maintaining summer recreation lake levels in Flathead Lake.
Final Drought Mangagement Plan Environmental Impact Statement
The Final EIS for the Drought Management Plan was released. As part of its analysis in preparing the Final EIS, the Department of Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs conducted additional assessments of flood risks, effect on docks, and statistical analyses to confirm the accuracy and reliability of forecasting indices. Modifications to the draft preferred alternative include requiring an adaptive management plan, coordination with Hungry Horse Dam operations, a plan for requesting deviations from stream flow requirements below Kerr Dam during droughts, and a requirement for updating drought indicators after five years.
Although we would prefer to see more specific language in the DMP preferred alternative to give lakeshore property owners and recreators information about the specific conditions that would lead to reductions in the lake level (to 2892.2 feet) during droughts so they can better plan for it, we believe the DMP that is finally adopted will be a much improved plan due to our comments, recommendations and participation.
The new plan will require:
- The dam operator will be required to review climate indicators each month during January through April to determine whether conditions necessitate using the DMP.
- Beginning April 15 through June 15, when the DMP is active, the operator will be required to maintain lake levels as high as flood control conditions allow.
- No later than April 10, the operator will review runoff volume forecasts. If drought conditions persist and forecasts indicate that a June 15 lake elevation of 2892.2 feet could not be met if minimum stream flows are maintained, they will request a deviation from the minimum stream flow requirements. This determination will be made following coordination with the Bureau of Reclamation to determine what, if any, additional water may be available from Hungry Horse Reservoir. A notice of intent to deviate would be submitted to the Secretary of the Interior, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers.
- The dam operator is required, under the DMP, to make “every reasonable effort to achieve a June 15 lake elevation no lower than 2, 892.2 feet” and higher if possible and make “every reasonable effort to maintain this minimum lake elevation from June 16 to September 15.”