Madison River facing drought challenges

Recreationists cautioned about low water levels and asked to avoid Rainbow Trout spawning redds
Madison River 4.jpg
madison river.jpg
madison river.png
Madison River 1.jpg
Madison River Fish Salvage.jpg
Posted at 12:29 PM, Apr 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-04 15:00:59-04

BUTTE - NorthWestern Energy officials say persistent drought conditions, low soil moisture and low snowpack are contributing to a forecast of continued low water levels at Hebgen Reservoir this season.

The low water levels are just the latest blow to the Madison River, which saw a dramatic decrease in river flow on Nov. 30, 2021, due to a malfunctioning outlet gate on the Hebgen Dam.

At the time, the USGS reported that water levels had dropped around a foot - it got to a low as around 600-650 cfs - where it has normally been flowing at around 850 cfs. On Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, the fishing community gathered early in the morning to work as quickly as they could in order to save fish along the Madison River.

On Dec. 9, 2021, Morgan Jacobsen from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said the flow rate had returned to the Madison River and fishing restrictions had been lifted. He says a damaged gate on the Hebgen Dam reduced the flow rate in the Madison to 200 feet per second when he says the rate is usually above 600 fps. He said that reduction left fish stranded out of the main channel and also threatened trout redds. Jacobsen says the redds are the areas where female trout dig trenches and lay their eggs.

Hebgen Reservoir is currently at an elevation of 6,524.6 feet, which is 10.3 feet from full pool. Inflows into Hebgen throughout the winter have been 79 percent of normal, while snowpack in the Madison River Basin is at 76 percent of normal levels [] and precipitation for the water year that began Oct. 1, 2021 is at 89% of normal levels. []

NorthWestern Energy will reduce Hebgen Dam water releases from April 4-24 to the Madison River in order to capture more water in Hebgen Reservoir.

Upper Madison River flows may be reduced to 550 cubic feet per second at the Kirby U.S. Geological Survey gage and to 950 cfs below Madison Dam at the McAllister U.S. Geological Survey gage.

River recreationists should be aware of the lower flows and use caution. The public is asked to avoid walking on any Rainbow Trout spawning redds during this low flow period.

“NorthWestern Energy and our stakeholders decided to move forward with this plan to conserve water now to allow for that water to be used later in the year,” said NorthWestern Energy Manager of Hydro License Compliance Andy Welch in a press release on Monday, April 4, 2022. “Saving this water to supplement flows during the heat of the summer will help to reduce stress on fish from elevated water temperatures.”

“These management challenges are exacerbated when we are coming off a drought year like last year and into what is shaping up to be another challenging year,” said Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana Executive Director Mike Bias. “Reducing flows out of Hebgen now to hopefully maintain adequate flows on the Madison through the summer and into fall is a necessary management decision although, not an easy one. We know too that NorthWestern Energy does not make this management decision in a vacuum. Montana's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, BLM, and the Forest Service fisheries managers all think this is the best course of action at this time.”

"We know too that NorthWestern Energy does not make this management decision in a vacuum. Montana's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, BLM, and the Forest Service fisheries managers all think this is the best course of action at this time.”
Mike Bias

“2022 is shaping up to be another very challenging season of drought on the Madison River with potentially too little water to fully meet all of the needs in the system,” NorthWestern Energy Director of Hydro Operations Jeremy Clotfelter said. “NorthWestern Energy is monitoring conditions and forecasts closely, while working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other stakeholders on options to conserve water.”

Hebgen Reservoir water is used to control the flows on the upper and lower Madison River year-round to protect and maintain the long-term health of the river system and the fishery.

“NorthWestern Energy’s stewardship responsibilities of the river resources include balancing the many interests of multiple stakeholders,” said Clotfelter.

Current water levels at Hebgen Lake and flows and water temperatures are available at []. Learn more about NorthWestern Energy’s stewardship and management of the Madison River system at []

The public is invited to a meeting from 6-8 p.m. April 26 at El Western, 4784 U.S. Highway 287, in Ennis to discuss Madison River topics, including snowpack and streamflow forecasts for the Madison River, fish populations, the Hebgen Dam gate malfunction and the projects sponsored by the Madison Fisheries Technical Advisory Committee.


Madison River Work Group delays decision on commercial guide limits
Hebgen Dam gate replaced, flow restored to Madison River