Organizations Request Investigation of NorthWestern Energy’s Permit Violations

Citizens Complaint Filed With Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Overseeing Hebgen Dam Safety and Operations

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Madison River Foundation filed a citizens complaint today with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regarding NorthWestern Energy’s failure to uphold the conditions of Hebgen Dam’s license that resulted in the November 30 dewatering event on the Upper Madison River. 

“This formal complaint is the means for holding NorthWestern Energy accountable for its dam’s failure, a thorough third-party investigation of impacts, and targeted action to make the river and downstream communities whole again,” said Guy Alsentzer, Executive Director of Upper Missouri Waterkeeper. “Two significant flow failures in fifteen years at NorthWestern’s Hebgen Dam sound the alarm call for much needed additional monitoring and redundancy to protect the river ecology and downstream economies that are directly dependent on stable outflows.”

NorthWestern Energy, the owner and operator of the dam under federal license No.P-2188, issued by FERC, violated two permit conditions when the gate shaft broke and drastically reduced outflows from the Hebgen reservoir. The provisions violated were (1) to maintain a continuous minimum flow of 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) at USGS Gauge No. 6-388 near the Kirby Ranch, and to (2) limit changes in outflow from Hebgen Dam to no more than 10 percent per day for the entire year. The USGS Gauge located at the Hebgen Dam measured outflow dropping from 648 cfs to 278 cfs within a 15 minute period (a reduction of 57%) and a maximum reduction down to 216 cfs (a reduction of 67%) within a 24-hr period. Similarly, Madison River flows dropped below the 600 cfs Article 403 minimum at Kirby Ranch, ultimately reducing to 395 cfs.

Upper Missouri Waterkeeper, Montana Environmental Information Center, and the Madison River Foundation are requesting that FERC require Northwestern Energy fund a thorough, third-party investigation of the malfunction and hold the permittee accountable to take the necessary steps in ensuring this tragedy is an isolated event.

“As a public utility, NorthWestern Energy must be held accountable for mismanagement of Montana’s natural resources, especially our water,” said Derf Johnson, Staff Attorney and Clean Water Director at MEIC. “NorthWestern needs to fully cooperate with a comprehensive and transparent investigation, mitigate the impacts to the environment, community, and economy, take measures to ensure that this never happens again, and pay to fix the problem out of its shareholders’ pockets.”

If FERC determines there is good cause to proceed with an investigation, the complaint will trigger a formal process, overseen by FERC, investigating the dam failure and the adequacy of Northwestern’s oversight and monitoring equipment failures that led to the dewatering of one of Montana’s most famed blue ribbon trout streams during critical spawning season. Another outcome could be the creation of targeted funding to support ecological restoration projects and help affected downstream stakeholders. 

“We have committed to our members, to Montanans, and to the Madison River, that we will protect its vital flows and be responsible stewards in maintaining a healthy watershed,” said Jonathan Malovich, Executive Director of Madison River Foundation. “This is just a single step in the right direction of many more to come to change the way we can all protect and manage the water that flows down the Madison River.” 

Because the long-term ecological and economic impacts from Hebgen Dam’s dewatering on the Upper Madison River may remain unknown for years to come, it is critical that a formal, nonpartisan process ask these questions and investigate lasting solutions now. The Complaint filing is separate from ongoing late December 2021 public correspondence between Northwestern Energy and FERC concerning the Upper Madison’s dam failure and is specifically focused on addressing ecological degradation.