Conservation Organizations Call on Gov. Gianforte to Hold NorthWestern Energy Accountable for Madison River Disaster

Malfunction left the Upper Madison River with significantly diminished flows, causing fish die-offs during a critical spawning time.

On Tuesday morning, the Upper Madison River’s Hebgen Dam experienced malfunctions resulting in drastically reduced flows from Hebgen Lake to Madison River. The dam is owned by Northwestern Energy and operated under a federal license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and Montana Environmental Information Center are calling for Governor Gianforte and the State of Montana to take immediate action to determine the cause and hold NorthWestern Energy accountable for the failure.

“Now is the time for Governor Gianforte to show leadership and hold NorthWestern Energy accountable for the corporation’s lack of oversight and failure to comply with their license. The foremost economic driver for this region nearly went dry, which will have lasting negative impacts on businesses, workers, and the community for years to come,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “The ecological and economic impacts of dewatering the Upper Madison during a critical spawning period will likely be significant, and immediate action must be taken to prevent this tragic event from ever occurring again.”

The organizations are calling for answers to the pressing questions including: how a malfunction to this serious degree occurred; why NorthWestern Energy failed to respond in a timely manner; when flows will be restored; and what steps will be taken to ensure that this won’t happen again.

“Montanans need action, accountability, and transparency from Governor Gianforte to get a plan in place immediately to restore the health of both the river and the communities that will suffer from NorthWestern Energy’s failure to comply with its license,” said Derf Johnson, Clean Water Director at MEIC. 

Significant reductions in flows from the dam caused severe dewatering of the Upper Madison River, including the exposure of side channels and cobblestones essential to trout spawning. The longer that critical aquatic habitat is exposed and one of Montana’s keynote blue-ribbon fisheries is left unnaturally constrained and cloistered, the more likely that long-term negative impacts to population levels will occur. Of particular concern to ecologists is how brown trout populations in the Upper Madison will be impacted, considering they spawn during late fall. Redds in particular are at critical risk.

The organizations also noted concern about NorthWestern Energy’s slow response time to individuals reporting the disaster. If NorthWestern officials were unaware of unnaturally low flows discharging from the Madison Dam for several hours as reported by news outlets, this represents a failure of oversight. It also calls into question what would happen if the dam allowed a surge and flood downstream, and NorthWestern’s equipment failed to detect it. Upper Missouri Waterkeeper and MEIC believe the public deserve to know if this same mechanical defect, apparent lagging response time, and defective protocols are present at other dams in the Missouri River Basin. 

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality have a legal responsibility to ensure the permittee, NorthWestern Energy, complies with all conditions of its FERC license No.P-2188 for the Missouri Madison Project, including protecting water quality, aquatic life, and adequate flows. Losing significant dam flows during spawning season and compromising the health of one of Montana’s most valuable fisheries constitute violations of Northwestern Energy’s hydropower license that must be remedied by the Gianforte Administration and state natural resource agencies.