Hydrology Snapshot, September 2023

by Skip Via

Here is a quick end-of-summer hydrology snapshot as of 9/18/23. (Compare to July 2023.)

Rainfall YTD-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.

Compare this image to the image at the top of this page and to the image from the Hydrology Snapshot, July 2023.

The other noticeable effect of the August rain event was the immediate and dramatic greening up of local flora. And lawns.

Are We Drying Up?

by Skip Via

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.

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Hydrology Snapshot, July 2023

by Skip Via

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:

Rainfall YTD5” (avg 9.72”)
Flathead Lake Level12” below 23-year median,
9” below full pool
Valley Sreamflow60% below average
Snowpack86% of average
SnowmeltFastest in 30 years
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Water Water Everywhere?

by Skip Via

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. See Editor’s Note, below, for clarification.)

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Geology Field Trip

by Dr. Lex Blood, Community Activist, Conservationist, Professor Emeritus/Flathead Valley Community College

To take a virtual tour of the West Valley area, click here

The West Valley Naturalists sponsored a geology field trip in May 2014.  Dr. Lex Blood led this field trip; for more than 40 years Lex Blood has served as Flathead Valley geologist, geographer, educator, conservationist. After a brief introduction we car-pooled and explained the “story behind the landscape” as we traveled through the West Valley area.  For background information on the geology of the Flathead Valley please visit: http://www.flatheadwatershed.org/natural_history/geology.shtml

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Flathead Valley Water Resources

by Skip Via

To take a virtual tour of the West Valley area, click here

Mike Koopal, Executive Director of the Whitefish Lake Institute, pointed us to some exceptional resources for learning more about the Flathead Valley watershed and the numerous lakes and streams that make up some of the most beautiful areas of the west valley area and the rest of Montana.

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