A state park over an irrigation project
Wind riffles the water while a couple of boats navigate to the best fishing spots at Ackley Lake last Saturday.
Photo by Deb Hill
It’s a lovely summer weekend in Central Montana, and Ackley Lake State Park is packed. Or at least the shoreline is, with at least 30 RVs and campers lined up around the edge of the crystal clear lake located five miles southwest of Hobson.
A couple of boats slowly motor across the lake while a few fisherman sit in lawn chairs on the shore, lines in, waiting for fish to bite. The smell of bacon and eggs lingers on the morning breeze. The sun reflects off the water, which is high this time of year, lapping at the trunks of the cottonwoods.
It’s as relaxing and inviting a spot as any campground, but perhaps therein lies a problem, as Ackley Lake did not start life as a recreation area. Its primary purpose, then and now, is irrigation.
“Ackley Lake was built in the 1930s as a water storage project, under what was then called the State Water Conservation Board,” said Sterling Sundheim, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation civil engineering specialist. “A lot of water storage projects were built in the 30s and 40s to improve summer irrigation.”
The dam was completed in 1938 and rehabilitated in 2009, according to a DNRC fact sheet. The dam itself is 51 feet high and 3,514 feet long, with a storage capacity of 6,722 acre-feet of water covering 250 surface acres.
“Its purpose is irrigation, but any time you have a body of water, you have people who want to stock it [with fish] or use it for recreation,” Sundheim said. “State Parks manages the recreation part.”
A popular park with management issues
“We [State Parks] lease 290 acres from the DNRC,” explained Park Manager Jason Pignanelli. Pignanelli’s office is at Giant Springs State Park in Great Falls, and he manages both parks. Due to the distance between the sites, Pignanelli relies on groundskeeper Roger Epkes of Hobson for day-to-day maintenance at Ackley Lake.
Pignanelli finds the situation a little bit frustrating.
“It’s hard to manage a park from this distance,” he said. “He [Epkes] may as well be the parks manager, in my opinion, as he does an awesome job. Ackley Lake is a difficult site in some respects.”
One problem, Pignanelli said, is campers don’t follow the rules. For example, while the campground has 15 official campsites, Wednesday Pignanelli said 35 RVs were parked there.
“Only three had people in them; the rest were just parked there so their owners can come on the weekend,” he said.
The distance to State Parks headquarters in Helena is part of the issue, Pignanelli said, as is funding.
“Ackley Lake is a Class 4 park, which is our lowest priority level,” he said.
Water levels fluctuate with the seasons
Likely none of the campers enjoying the area this week knew of the struggle to keep the park’s facilities in good condition. Mostly they were enjoying the cool, clear lake water and the opportunity to camp under Central Montana’s big skies.
“Recreation is a complimentary use,” Sundheim said. “But irrigation takes priority. The water users, though, are very conscientious. They leave more water than they need to because they know how much people enjoy the lake.”
Sundheim explained the lake refills from the Judith River every year, and is usually at its highest levels between about May and the end of June.
“When they start irrigating, it draws down in July and August,” he said.
The agreements with water users date back to the 30s when the state met with surrounding landowners and created water use contracts, Sundheim said. Oversight of the irrigation and repairs to the earthen dam or irrigation structures are handled by the Ackley Lake Water Users Association, which has its own board. Twenty-seven water users have 53 contracts amounting to 4,766 acre-feet of water for irrigation, DNRC reports.
“We [DNRC] rarely get calls about the water levels,” Sundheim said, explaining the dam tender tasked with releasing water for irrigation probably hears more of those concerns. DNRC, he said, works cooperatively with Fish, Wildlife and Parks on road grading and maintaining some of the facilities.
While the end of summer spells the end of camping for some, the lake area is used by hunters and, in winter, is popular as an ice fishing site.
“At the end of December we are looking at winter carry-over storage [of water in the lake],” Sundheim said. “We must keep a minimum amount of water in the lake, to keep the concrete structures under at least 5 feet of water so the ice doesn’t damage them. The lake can’t be too full or else ice will pluck the rocks out of the rip rap [loose stone placed to protect the banks].”
But for now, the lake is high and the cool, clear water beckons on hot summer days, a magnet for campers, fishermen and swimmers.