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Flathead Lake Healthy, Biological Station Director Says

The Flathead Lake Biological Station held it's 2018 open house on August 3.
Flathead Lake Biological Station
The Flathead Lake Biological Station held it's 2018 open house on August 3.

Flathead Lake remains healthy, mussel-free and blue, according to the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station. MTPR's Nicky Ouellet reports from the station’s open house.
Station Director Jim Elser says across the board, data indicate Flathead Lake is in good health.

"My fellow Montanans. The state of our lake is: Blue. That's good! We like a blue lake."

Elser delivered his annual “State of the Lake” address, highlighting some of the Station’s research, like the citizen science project in partnership with the Flathead Lakers to measure water clarity, which Elser says is an indicator of lake health as well as a boon to local property values.

"In my opinion the best thing about these data is that there's no trend," Elser says. "They just kind of bounce around. There's no long-term shift. It's not getting shallower."

But there are significant unknowns. While the Bio Station regularly monitors the lake’s clarity, nutrient levels and weather, Elser says no one is keeping track of septic systems that could be leaking waste around and into the lake. He says as much as four percent of the nutrients entering Flathead Lake could come from leaking septic systems, but he adds hard data is lacking.

"It could be five times higher for all we know. We don't really know."

The Flathead Basin Commission recently recommended a bill to fund a study of how much septic systems are leaching into Flathead, Whitefish and Echo Lakes.

Elser also touched on his colleagues’ groundbreaking research and development of sensors that can detect free-floating DNA. Elser says this technology can help lake managers in their effort to keep invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels out of Montana waters. These sensors can detect mussel DNA in the lake or in droplets on boats at inspection stations.

"We're able to show and demonstrate and probably measure the effectiveness of the cleaning operation they use at each station. We'll hopefully be able to tell who has good procedures and who doesn’t, who has it working and who doesn’t have it working, and you get the information right away. It’s very, very exciting."

Soon-to-be-published research from the station’s new environmental economist shows that the Salish Ksanka Qlispe Dam at the outlet of Flathead Lake could spend as much as $8.1 million annually in maintenance costs if mussels were to make their way into the dam’s pipework.

The Bio Station in recent years has pushed the envelope of early detection technology, which Elser says could help the state stave off a costly mussel infestation. 

"To me even if it's a generation, it'd be worth it."

The Flathead Lake Biological Station kicks off its fall semester teaching graduate students from the University of Montana on August 27.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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