Here is a quick end-of-summer hydrology snapshot as of 9/18/23. (Compare to July 2023.)
-3.4” from average
Flathead Lake Level
-36” (3’) from full pool
Hungry Horse Reservoir
-168” (14’) from full pool
Streamflow, Flathead River
-80 cfps from normal
Despite a welcome August rain (21st wettest August on record) from the remnants of Cyclone Hilary, most of the Flathead Valley is still experiencing “moderate drought.” As of this writing, we’re experiencing the 6th driest year in 129 years of record keeping. Lake levels remain at historic lows. Streamflow in the North and Middle forks of the Flathead River are at “historic lows.” Streamflow in the Flathead River is somewhat mitigated by release from the Hungry Horse dam, which by regulation must maintain a minimum streamflow level for water leaving the dam. That release is causing the water level at the dam to drop.
Local lakes and ponds have benefitted from the August rain. Water levels are noticeably higher than they were in July, but are still far below average levels. Some of this increase is due to runoff, and some is due to the raising of the water table through replenishment of the shallow aquifers that underlie most of the West Valley area.
Editor’s note: In an earlier post on our website (Water Water Everywhere?) I discussed the nature of our valley water resources. Our groundwater comes from two sources–the shallow, unconfined aquifers that are replenished by precipitation, and the deeper confined aquifer from which Kalispell’s municipal water and most of the water used for irrigation in the valley is drawn. None of our water comes from reservoirs. (Whitefish gets its municipal water from Whitefish Lake.) A review of that article might provide good context for this article.
The intent of this article is intended to stimulate thought, not to advocate for a specific viewpoint. To that end, some assumptions, disclaimers and caveats:
I’m not a hydrologist, climatologist, or a geologist–just an interested observer;
Weather can change quickly in these parts;
Weather and climate are not the same thing;
I don’t know the answers to the questions I am posing.
It’s not difficult to see what a critical force water has been in the geographical and habitation history of our valley. If we didn’t have access to abundant water resources, both above and below ground, we would not be the agricultural center that we are now. And if it weren’t for glaciers, snowpack, and rushing rivers and streams, the landscape around here would look a lot different. There probably wouldn’t even be a place level enough with sufficient soil to farm at all.
Take a look at this Google Earth view of the Flathead Valley.
Glacial action and the melting of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet 15,000 to 13,000 years ago carved huge valleys through the rocky terrain, deposited mineral-rich soil in the valleys, and established huge rivers, smaller waterways, lakes and ponds that have supported wildlife and people since that time. There was once a LOT of water here, in liquid and solid form.
Here’s a closer look at the West Valley area of the Flathead.
Notice all the small kettle ponds, sloughs (wet and dry), rivers, and former river channels that dot the landscape. Their presence is a direct result of the end of the last ice age. The huge volume of water/ice that drained out of our valley left them behind. An historically consistent post-glacial climate, particularly in terms of annual precipitation, replenished those ponds and waterways from year to year by creating mountain snowpacks and replenishing glaciers. Not every year, because weather patterns can change dramatically over short periods of time. But for the most part, access to abundant water has never been a problem.
But it’s not at all difficult to look at the picture above and see and a landscape that is drying up. When it rains at my house, the initial introduction of water runs down my driveway like a small stream. But over time, as the source of that water goes away, the water forms smaller and smaller rivulets and pools that eventually shrink through evaporation, drainage, and lack of replenishment. I can see that same phenomenon in the picture above. The source of the water that used to course through our valley has been significantly reduced, leaving a variety of telltale traces. That makes sense. The 4,000+ feet of ice that used to cover our valley melted and had to go somewhere, and over time more and more of that water has left the valley. But are we at a point of stasis, or are we still losing water? Will the future be drier, like my driveway when the sun comes out?
Let’s think about that in the context of the 2+ decades-long historic drought that most of the western United States is enduring. Here is a list of the major rivers that flow across the US west (defined here as in and west of the Rocky Mountains) and the states through which they flow, ranked by length of the main stem, longest first:
Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri
Gulf of Mexico*
Colorado, New Mexico, Texas
Gulf of California*
Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California
Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas
Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington
Wyoming, Colorado, Utah
*These rivers have lost water to the extent that they no longer reach their historic mouths.
Now think about this: The following states–Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, California and Idaho (in bold, above)–are using more water than they receive each year through replenishing precipitation or melting glaciers (Source: World Resources Institute). That gap is the result of several factors: agriculture, manufacturing, household uses, and prolonged drought due to climate change. But because of this situation, less and less water is entering the west’s waterways and aquifers as each year passes.
Only 3.5 percent of the Earth’s water is drinkable. Sixty-eight percent of that is trapped in glaciers and ice caps, mostly in Greenland and Antarctica. Thirty percent of Earth’s fresh water is underground, much of it deep enough that it is not accessible. (See Water Water Everywhere?) According to research, about half of the water in our underground aquifers will be depleted in the next 40 years (Source: Colorado State University.) We’ve pumped and redistributed so much groundwater (2,150 gigaton between 1933 and 20I0) that we have affected the tilt of the Earth on its axis (Science.org). I am not able to find any current information on the level of depletion/replenishment of our Flathead Valley aquifers, but I do know that the Deep Aquifer is the source of all of Kalispell’s municipal water along with most of the valley’s irrigation systems and domestic wells.
So, where does that put us here in West Valley?
These are important questions for our valley, not to mention the rest of the world. In the western US, we’ve seen a steady drain on water resources over the past century or so. The Colorado River no longer flows to the Gulf of California. The Rio Grande dries up before it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Aquifers in Nevada, California and neighboring states are being depleted and wells are failing. Aquifers can be replenished, but it takes time. And lots of water.
Here in the valley, it’s clear that our surface water resources have diminishing over time due to a variety of factors. The warming climate and steady population growth suggests to me that we’re not in a period of stasis in that regard but that we will continue to lose surface water resources. The Deep Aquifer under West Valley is large, but it’s not infinite, especially when replenishing sources of water are becoming more scarce.
So, are we drying up, or are we just experiencing a pendulum swing that will eventually return us to a period of more stasis and balance? I don’t know, but I think it’s a question worth asking, and probably worth devoting some long-term planning to.
My intention with this post is to begin a regular documentation of the local effects that hydrological issues have on life here in the valley.
This post from last month–Water Water Everywhere?–discusses some of the hydrological factors involved in how we access water resources for drinking and agriculture here in the valley, including a discussion of the water table and the Deep Aquifer, from which most of our water is drawn. The distinction between the water table and the Deep Aquifer is important. Rainfall, which can alter the local water table either by its presence or absence, does not affect the amount of water in the Deep Aquifer. Please refer to that article for more information.
Here’s a quick Flathead Valley hydrology snapshot from July 4, 2023:
If an enterprise or place name here in the valley doesn’t begin with “Glacier,” there’s a good chance that it begins with “Flathead.” We live in Flathead County, in the Flathead Valley drained by the Flathead River. There’s Flathead Valley Community College, Flathead High School, Flathead National Forest, Flathead Lake, the Flathead Beacon…
But where exactly does that name come from, and what does it mean? There’s a clue in the Flathead County Seal, but there is much more to the story.
The Aurora Borealis is often referred to as the Northern Lights because we see it to our north. But this is a bit of a misnomer, as the “lights” are also seen in the Southern Hemisphere, where they are referred to as the Aurora Australis. In fact, not only does Earth have auroral displays, but auroras can be seen on images of other celestial bodies, such as Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.
This inspiration for this project came largely from the work of Dr. Lex Blood, professor emeritus, Flathead Valley Community College, for his extensive (and clearly heartfelt) efforts to make the geological history of the valley accessible to everyone. Thank you, Lex.
To take a virtual tour of the West Valley area, click here.
It’s easy to take water for granted here in the valley. We’re surrounded by water, with numerous streams and rivers, lakes and ponds of various sizes, and seasonal runoff from snow and rain that typically replenish the surface water that we see.
The water we drink and irrigate with here in the West Valley comes from underground aquifers–layers of permeable rocks or sediments that are saturated with water. Our shallower surface aquifers are fed by groundwater that enters the aquifers mostly through seasonal precipitation or snowmelt.
The Flathead Valley also sits directly atop a large, deep aquifer referred to in studies, appropriately enough, as The Deep Aquifer. It’s from this aquifer that our municipal water is drawn. Farms and homes also tap into the Deep Aquifer via wells for irrigation or daily use. (The city of Whitefish does not draw water from the Deep Aquifer. They draw their municipal water from Whitefish Lake and surrounding streams.)
Editor’s note: Images provided by Barbara Boorman as an accompaniment to her article about fighting wildfires. Captions are transcribed from the reverse side of the photo. To read Barbara and Pat’s history of firefighting in the Flathead Valley, click here.
Editor’s note: Captions on these images are transcribed from the reverse side of the photo. For more images from Barbara’s collection, click here.
In 1910, there were disastrous fires in northern Idaho and northwestern Montana when hundreds of thousands of acres of timberlands were destroyed; many lives were lost, and much property outside of the forests was destroyed.
In May, 1911, many timberland owners and other owners of other property in northwestern Montana met and organized the Northern Montana Fire Association (NMFA), a non-profit organization for protecting life and property in the region. A.E. (Albert) Boorman became the Chief Fire Warden and secretary/treasurer of the organization.
The boundaries of the area covered by the NMFA were from Whitefish south to Nirada (north of Hot Springs) and from Kalispell west to Lost Prairie, McGregor Lake, and Flathead Mine. In 1921, the NMFA charged $0.015 per acre to anyone – forest owner, rancher, homesteader – who appreciated the availability of a firefighting crew in the area should the need arise. As A.E. Boorman said in a Daily Interlake interview in 1921, the organization charged just enough to cover costs “and no more.”
West Valley School was opened in 1961. But what was schooling in the valley like before that?
Stillwater School first opened on January 21, 1899. The first building was a small log cabin on the Henry Bird place on the corner of Clark Drive and Stillwater Road. All eight grades were taught here with just one teacher.
The Mountain Lady’s Slipper, aka White Lady’s Slipper, is a striking sight, whether as a single stalk like this one or a in big clump. Although their very existence requires an amazing amount of chance and even the support of a fungal partner, they find a niche that works for them in our area. I visited this solitary plant at least once every month from June to October, 2022. Read on to watch its progress.
Members of the Wood-Warblers’ family, Yellow-rumped Warblers are one of the earliest Warbler species to arrive in the West Valley. There are two main populations: “Audubon’s” breeds mainly in the mountains of the western U.S. and into British Colombia; “Myrtle” breeds from the eastern U.S. across Canada to Alaska.