Montana drought outlook

Dry February keeps Montana snowpack in the red

Although March is coming in like a lion, February weather in Montana did not bring the anticipated storms and was, overall dry, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

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Snowpack in several areas of northwest Montana received at least average precipitation, keeping northwest Montana on top of its snowpack. (David Reese photo/Montana Living)

The main culprit for Montana's dry February was a stubborn ridge of high pressure off the West Coast that blocked Pacific moisture from flowing to the Rocky Mountain region, the NRCS said.

Southwest Montana only received 50 percent to 80 percent of its typical precipitation and even set record low accumulations for February, according to USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service SNOTEL period of record data. January precipitation was below normal for most of Montana, and February "was worse in many river basins,” NRCS Hydrologist Eric Larson said.

Northwest Montana near the Continental Divide was one exception. This area received more than five inches of precipitation during the last several days of February.

Due to the overall lack of February precipitation, most snowpack percentages decreased from Feb. 1. Exceptions were the Sun-Teton-Marias, Powder, and Tongue River basins which increased slightly. Montana’s current snowpack percent of normal ranges from 77 percent to 107 percent, with the Smith River basin, Judith Basin and Musselshell River Basin at the lower end of that range and the Kootenai and St. Marys at the upper end.

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Eight and half miles long, Spring Creek runs through private lands, the town of Choteau and to the Teton River. (Photo courtesy of Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation)

Last year much of the seasonal snowpack was recovered during February and we all hoped for the same this year. Unfortunately, the snowpack was overall in better shape on March 1 last year than it is now, according to the NRCS.

Basins currently lacking snow will need well above normal precipitation over the next couple of months to meet their typical snowpack peaks. “While the chances of meeting those peaks becomes less likely as the season progresses, it is not impossible to recover from a well below normal March 1 snowpack and it has happened before,” Larson said.

In general, March and April are large contributors to water year precipitation, particularly east of the Continental Divide. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center does give hope for potential improvement to conditions over the next few weeks. The 6-10 day outlook also shows promise, with good chances for below average temperatures and above average precipitation across Montana.

March 1 streamflow forecasts generally follow the snowpack pattern across the state indicating below normal streamflows for April through July in southwest Montana and near to above normal west of the Continental Divide and in the streams along the Rocky Mountain Front.

“The next couple of months will determine if basins with below normal snowpacks can add to their mountain reservoirs, reach normal peaks, and improve the outlook for streamflow this spring and summer,” according to the NRCS's Larson. Springtime weather will be a major factor in streamflow. If spring weather warms up quickly, streams could peak early and have less water to deliver through the summer. And if Montana weather stays cool – and if more snow arrives next week as predicted – the water supply picture could be better.

A full report of Montana snowpack conditions can be found at under Snow Survey.

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