Drought Picture Improves a Bit as Summer Looms

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — May is finishing with a flurry of rain — and even snow in places — that is giving drought watchers hope as the summer season looms.

A dry start to the year turned less grim with rainfall in much of the state, but experts said it is still too early to tell the effects on the summer fire season, agriculture and recreation.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation drought map before much of the recent rain showed dry conditions lingering in southern Montana. Parts of southwestern Montana are hardest hit. Most southwestern Montana counties were ranked in a drought alert status, while most other counties across the lower half of the state were ranked at least slightly dry by the middle of May.

Recent rain — and the potential for more — could improve the situation before the heat of summer hits, according to the DNRC. The agency is hopeful weather patterns over the Pacific could still bring more moisture to parched areas of the state.

“I think the moisture we received has improved drought conditions, but that can all change fairly quickly in Montana,” said Lt. Gov. John Walsh, who chairs the state’s drought advisory board.

The DNRC points out that Montana is faring much better than some other parts of the West that are bordering on extreme drought conditions.

The National Weather Service said it is predicting a good chance that June will be drier and hotter than normal — a prediction that remains about the same for the rest of the summer. The agency said the recent wet weather is providing a boost to drought-like conditions.

“We are making up some shortfalls. It will be interesting to see if we make up as much as we need to,” said Gina Loss of the National Weather Service office in Great Falls. “Not the best news, but it is just an outlook and we could still get some good storms.”

Snowpack also lags behind normal in much of Montana, only about half of what should be expected in some places, and stream flows are running about 80 percent of last year. Warm weather earlier in spring prematurely melted snowpack.

That has raised the concern in the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks that fishing restrictions may be needed, especially on popular rivers like the Blackfoot and upper Clark Fork, later in the summer if it gets hot.

“We are expecting to hit target flows for fish managements as early as Aug. 1,” said Mike McLane, with the FWP. “The unfortunate part of some of this is the areas that are really dry are the areas that are most desired and heavily used, especially by tourists.”

The outlook for fires also remains tenuous despite the recent rainfall. The state usually sees some wildfire activity before late spring “green-up” of foliage, but the number of acres burned already is above normal, the DNRC said. Recent fires have put that acreage total close to 5,000 across the state.

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