Out of Bounds

Stormy Children of the Pacific

This is the second winter in a row El Niño conditions have persisted, though there are signs it’s breaking down

By Rob Breeding

It’s official. As we move into mid-February the season for hand-wringing over Montana’s dismal snowpack has begun, in earnest. 

The state is so far behind it will take a wild and snowy three months to catch up in time for that snow to melt into irrigation water, lakes, and, most importantly, for some folks, trout streams.

Blame it on El Niño, a weather phenomenon characterized in part by warmer-than-normal water accumulating in the eastern Pacific off the equatorial coast of South America. 

Most, by now, know El Niño is Spanish for little boy

This is the second winter in a row El Niño conditions have persisted, though there are signs it’s breaking down and La Niña (little girl) may dominate by year’s end.

El Niño usually means more rain and snow in the southwest and drier winters in the Northern Rockies. This pattern is demonstrated by the current map of snow telemetry, or SNOTEL sites, that measure snowpack across the West. In Arizona and New Mexico, most of the sites are some shade of blue, meaning snowpack is above 100% of normal.

As you move north, the blues give way to greens in the mountains of Utah and Colorado. Green means 90 to 109% of normal, or an average year.

It’s past the line that extends across the northern boundary of California, then dividing Nevada from Oregon and Idaho, and finally to the northern border of Utah, that the colors change, dramatically, and green gives way to yellow, orange and red, extending into Montana.

When Montana SNOTEL sites favor red this time of year, we get snow water equivalents of 69%, which is where the Flathead watershed sat when I wrote this, or the tragic 42% estimate in the Sun, Teton and Marias watersheds on the other side of the Rockies.

The “bright” spots in Montana are the Kootenai and Jefferson basins, at 72% and 71%.

As far as I’m concerned, calling the bleak, autumn-hued disaster on the USDA website a snow-water-equivalent map is a grave bit of false advertising. The USDA ought to call it what it really is, a misery index for farmers, fly fishers and anyone in the region who’d prefer a lot less smoke with the air they breathe in August.

When the government workers who keep an eye on these things on our behalf talk about the numbers, they always provide a decent share of caveats, as they should. They can only predict the weather and predictions are not guaranteed. Anyone in Montana, or anywhere else, who has a mild interest in their local weather has seen bad turn to good, or the unfortunate opposite, faster than meteorologists and forecasters thought possible.

You might recall that for years before the winter of 2022-23, the parched Southwest was locked in a drought that seemed unbreakable. Most folks thought it would take years of above-average precipitation for the region to get back to something resembling normal. 

Then last winter, El Niño said “Hold my beer,” and aimed an atmospheric river at the West Coast, erasing that drought in a matter of weeks. 

This same naughty child aimed another river of western Pacific moisture at the West Coast earlier this month. Quail hunters like me are rooting for one more El Niño blast, preferably in about a month, to grow a mess of birds for fall’s hunting season. I remain hopeful.

A year from now, the Southern Oscillation in the Pacific may have flipped to full La Niña, which bumbs the winter storm track northward, in Montana’s direction. 

We can only hope. There are warning signs the state’s wild trout fisheries are already breaking under the combined stress of too much summer heat and not enough water.

For now, I’ll simply wish for El Niño’s aim to become a little erratic, steering an atmospheric river or two Montana’s way before winter plays out.