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Swimming closed at Riverside Park due to strong currents

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POLSON — Temperatures Saturday were in the 70s, and Riverside Park in Polson would typically be overflowing with families and kids frolicking in the still frigid (in this reporter’s opinion) waters of Flathead Lake. While the playground still had a few customers, the swim area was closed Friday due to high water and dangerous currents. 

Energy Keepers, which operates Séliš Ksanka QÍispé Dam a few miles downstream, reported on its Facebook page Friday that inflows to Flathead Lake were finally matching the amount of water exiting the outlet at the bridge in Polson at approximately 57,100 cubic feet per second. The post predicted the lake level, which was about six inches above full pool Friday, would begin to recede in coming days, hopefully reaching its preferred summer level of 2,893 feet soon. Until then, the SKQ Dam “remains on a complete free-flow operation, the post said, while predicting “relief is in sight!”

High lake levels have swamped docks and caused issues for boaters and other recreationists.

“We have more water coming through the Flathead Basin right now than we’ve seen since 1964,” said Energy Keepers CEO Brian Lipscomb. 

During the last decade, he said spring and early summer water levels in the lower Flathead River have been increasing over historical flows, with a peak flow of around 50,000 cfs gushing downstream in about half of the past 10 years. “We have more droughts and we have more issues with high flows, like we’re seeing right now.”

Compared to much of the West, which is in the grips of prolonged and extreme drought conditions, late-season snowfall and recent rains have caused flooding in the Flathead Basin and other parts of Montana. Still, Lipscomb says, conditions could change in a hurry. 

“It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if in August we see what’s called a ‘flash drought,’ where we have high winds and extreme temperatures and the countryside just dries out.”

Meanwhile, all the water coming through the lake is gushing over the dam, which is capable of managing flows of up to 112,000 cubic feet per second when all 14 spill gates are open. Even with two gates closed for scheduled maintenance, the dam can still accommodate 98,000 cfs, around 40,000 cfs more than its current flow. 

On Saturday, the cascade of water over the 204-foot high concrete arch, and ensuing plumes of spray as the river settles into the canyon below, was breathtaking and a little alarming. 

As the City of Polson cautioned in announcing the temporary closure of the park’s popular swimming hole: “Please keep in mind that flooding and swift waters pose significant safety hazards to recreationists and hazards can evolve without warning. Recreationists can avoid accidents and injury by observing all safety closures and avoiding areas with flooding.”

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