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Montana drought committee provides updates on conditions, impacts

Drought Committee Meeting
Posted at 6:46 PM, Aug 17, 2023

HELENA — As a stretch of hot weather continues across much of Montana, a state committee met Thursday for an updated look at drought conditions.

The Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee met Thursday in Helena. They went over the latest drought reports and the effects the conditions are having on everything from streamflows to agriculture and fishing.

Leaders said much of the state has seen improvements compared to this time last year, with the notable exception of northwestern Montana. Overall, a similar percentage of the state’s land area is currently under drought as in 2022, though the actual locations of that drought have shifted.

“Variability is the order of the day,” said Michael Downey, water planning section supervisor for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Downey said Montana is coming off of two years of serious drought, but much of the state was drought-free by the start of summer. However, leaders report this July was the 15th-driest on record statewide, and the period from May through July was the ninth-warmest.

“They’re important months, especially on the east side of the Divide,” said Downey. “So that dried out, and things change quickly.”

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor, updated as of Aug. 15, shows abnormally dry conditions in much of western Montana and along the Hi-Line. The most severe drought remains in the northwestern corner of the state, where parts of the Flathead basin and other nearby river systems are reporting some of their lowest recorded streamflows for this time of year. Areas like south-central Montana, on the other hand, have still seen strong moisture.

Downey said, because the dry conditions started later this year, many agricultural producers are in better shape than in 2022.

“We had some really good spring rains in May and early June, which are really critical – especially on the east side of the divide where those June rains are really what drives that that good production,” he said. “So the grass and the crops got a really good start.”

However, through the state’s Drought Impact Reporter, they’ve also heard from farmers and ranchers who have been heavily affected by drought, particularly around Glacier and Toole Counties.

“That Montana Drought Impact Reporter is really important for us to zone in on those areas of drought that we might be missing in our metrics,” Downey said. “It's difficult for us to have enough weather stations to really cover the whole state well.”

Leaders encourage people affected by drought – and those not experiencing drought – to submit observations to the Impact Reporter.

Forecasts for the coming weeks show Montana is likely to receive some rain, as tropical moisture moves in. Downey said that would be a positive step, but for the long-term drought outlook, the bigger effect will be from what comes this fall.

“August tends to be dry,” he said. “The fact that we're getting any moisture at all is certainly a relief, and I think that is going to help our folks fighting wildfires. But it really is that September timeframe that is so important.”

DNRC leaders said Thursday that about 71,000 acres have burned in wildfires across Montana so far this year, much of in the northwest corner. That’s comparable – though slightly higher – to the roughly 62,000 acres burned at the same time last year. The full 2022 fire season ended up relatively quiet, with only 125,000 acres burned statewide – compared to the 10-year average of 341,000 acres, as reported by the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.