By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Montana is still not out of its drought - which some areas have been experiencing for nearly five years - but the situation is looking better than it has in years.
"When you compare last year to this year, it's a turnaround," said Peggy Stringer, state statistician of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Montana Agricultural Statistics Service.
Jesse Aber of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said the members of the Governor's Drought Advisory Committee are cautiously optimistic.
But, he pointed out, the state still has to recover from four to five years of precipation deficits that have lowered the water table and reduced soil moisture. Some areas have an 8- to 18-inch deficit from their normal precipitation to make up, he said.
The Havre area's cumulative deficit from 1996 through 2002 is 10.77 inches. So far this year, Havre is at 4.51 inches, compared to an average of 4.59 for this time of year. For the water year, starting Oct. 1, Havre is at 5.28 inches. The average is 6.17 inches.
Aber said the water year so far ranks as the 36th driest in the 123 years of record keeping for the Havre area.
If the state has a hot, dry period for a few weeks, it could slip right back to the drought situation it was in last August, Aber said.
Last year the U.S. Drought Monitor categorized most of the state as being in drought status, with north-central Montana receiving an exceptional drought rating by the end of April. That was the earliest time of the year the most severe drought rating had ever been used, said representatives of the Drought Monitor, a joint group of federal and state agencies, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and other experts.
This week's drought monitor shows a band along the Rocky Mountain Front and through the central and southern areas of the state still with moderate to severe drought status, with a forecast through August showing drought continuing with some chance of improvement through the region. The northeastern part of the band is forecast as likely to improve. North-central Montana ranges from moderate drought to abnormaly dry, with a forecast of likely improvement. Roy Kaiser of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Tim Felchle of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said the situation is similar for streamflow and reservoir levels in the state. Outside of a couple of areas that still need more moisture, most of the state has improved, they said.
Ron Zellar, public information specialist at the Montana Department of Agriculture, said the numbers posted by the statistics service tell the tale, although improvement in the long term is hard to predict.
Eighty-one percent of Montana's topsoil has average or surplus moisture, with 19 percent short or very short. Last year at this time, 59 percent had adequate or surplus water, with 41 percent short or very short.
The five-year average, which Stringer points out includes the effects of the ongoing drought, shows even less water. Forty-five percent had adequate or surplus moisture, with 55 percent short or very short.
Perhaps more importantly, the subsoil moisture also has turned around. Thirty-nine percent is listed as being short or very short of moisture, with 61 percent adequate or surplus. Last year at this time, 79 percent was listed as short or very short, with only 21 percent adequate or surplus. In the five-year average, 66 percent was listed as short or very short of moisture, with 34 percent adequate or surplus.
Stringer said that is significant because it takes the subsoil longer to lose its moisture.
"Definitely the water has percolated down into the soil and that's looking a lot better," she said. "If the rain was to stop today and stop for a month or so, yes, we're going to be in the same condition we were in last year. We need to continue to get more precip."
At least in the short term, the state is expected to get more precipitation, said Gina Loss, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls. Beyond that, it's nearly impossible to predict, she added.
The combination of a high pressure ridge to the west of Montana and a low pressure ridge to the east is bringing some storm systems in, resulting in the rain showers areas of the state have been experiencing for the past week. Loss said the weekend may warm up and dry out a bit, but a storm system in Canada could come through the state next week, resulting in more rain.
The El Nino weather system, caused by an increase in the temperature of the surface water of the eastern Pacific Ocean that often causes flooding in Peru and the southern regions of the United States and drought in the West, is ending, Loss said. The pattern could shift to the opposite, called La Nina, she added. That system usually results in below average temperatures in the West, and above-average precipitation during the winter and average to below average precipitation in the summer.
But the Climate Prediction Center of the Weather Service can't predict the weather over the summer yet, she cautioned. Its staffers are predicting equal chances for above or below average temperatures and precipitation.
"They don't have anything to hang their hats on," she said.
The statistics on pastures and crops, particularly winter wheat, also reflect the higher amounts of precipitation that areas of Montana received last summer and in the last few months.
"It's just looking great," Stringer said.
Of the winter wheat crop, 75 percent is listed as good or excellent, with 6 percent listed as poor or very poor. Last year at this time, 18 percent was listed as good or excellent, with 56 percent poor or very poor. The five-year average lists 25 percent good or average and 42 percent poor or very poor.
By this time last year, 50 percent of the winter wheat crop had been abandoned, Stringer added. This year, about 8 percent has been abandoned, which is about average. The statistics service expects farmers will harvest 1.7 million acres of the 1.85 million acres planted with winter wheat in 2002, compared to 750,000 harvested of 1.45 million planted in 2001.
That reflects the higher moisture the topsoil had when the wheat was planted last fall, as well as the precipitation this spring, she said. The winter wheat didn't have that the previous year.
"Basically, by spring it was dead," she said.
The conditions also look better for spring crops, Stringer said. With normal precipitation over the summer, producers should be able to expect a return to more normal crop yields, possibly better than average if the state receives extra precipitation.
Spring wheat is listed with 73 percent of the crops good or excellent, with 1 percent poor and zero very poor. Last year at this time, it was listed as 6 percent poor or very poor and 40 percent good or excellent. The five-year average shows 17 percent of spring wheat poor or very poor and 48 percent good or excellent.
The pasture land in the state is also significantly improved, although Zellar said its recovery also depends on how overgrazed and drought-stressed the plants are. Some producers may have to reseed their pasture, he said, and the drought also brought more weeds.
"You get some dead spots and the invaders come in," he said.
The pasture statistics show 65 percent listed as in good or excellent condition, with 7 percent listed as poor or very poor. Last year at this time 20 percent was listed as good or excellent, with 43 percent poor or very poor. The five-year average lists 29 percent good or excellent and 40 percent poor or very poor.
NRCS also forecasts improved streamflows over last year. While most of the state's rivers and streams are still listed with below-average streamflow forecasts, most are also higher than last year's forecasts at this time.
Kaiser said the main exceptions are the Sun-Teton and Marias river systems, which are still forecast at far below average streamflows.
The improvement is over last year's forecast, not over the actual streamflows. Especially after a major storm moved through Montana in early June last year - it dumped from 3 to 7 inches of precipitation in the form of rain and snow from Glacier to Hill counties in about three days - the actual streamflows improved significantly in some areas.
"The Milk River turned out higher than expected. It was substantially different than what was forecast," Kaiser said.
The forecasts assume average precipitation. If the state receives substantially higher than average, the streamflows will increase. If it receives substantially lower than expected, they will drop, Kaiser added.
The higher than average temperatures in late May have made the streamflows even more dependent on summer moisture, he said. The snowmelt and streamflows have already peaked, and the flows are starting to drop.
"There is, unfortunately, a chance of slipping back," Kaiser said.
The long-term situation depends on the snowpack in the next few years, he added.
"I hope we're going to get a good winter next year, and a winter that pretty much covers the state," he said.
The Bureau of Reclamation has much the same report for reservoirs around the state. Felchle said that except for Clark Canyon Reservoir and Bighorn Lake, most of the lakes and reservoirs the bureau manages are at adequate levels.
The biggest problem on those two systems will be carrying over a supply to next year, he said. Most of the state looks better for carryover, but that depends on summer and winter precipitation, he added.
The Milk River system is in relatively good shape. Lake Sherburne, in Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, supplies water that is diverted to the Milk River through the St. Mary Diversion. It is 58.9 percent full, or 14 percent above the average for this time of year. Fresno Reservoir west of Havre is 87.2 percent full, 25 percent above average, and Nelson Reservoir, east of Malta, is 81.8 percent full, or 7 percent above average.
Felchle said he doesn't expect any shortage of water in the Milk River system unless it gets very hot and dry over the next few months, and irrigators can probably expect full allotments of the water they request.
But, he cautioned, people should still try to be conservative in their water use. The system still doesn't have much extra water, he said.
"Also, we have to carry over to next year," he added.
The carryover for Fresno was above average for the first time in five years. The lowest the reservoir's water level dropped to after last June's heavy storm was 90 percent of average on Aug 9. The lowest it dropped in the year before was 3,443 acre-feet on April 4, 3.7 percent full and 6 percent of the average for that date.
While the drought is not over, and could come back, the Governor's Drought Advisory Committee, chaired by Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, is meeting next week and will do a statewide, county-by-county analysis of drought conditions, Stringer said.
"That should tell the story. Some of these counties that had severe drought last month could come out of drought (status)," she said.
On the Net: Drought Monitor: www.drought.unl.edu/dm/index.html
Natural Resource Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center: www.wcc.nrcs.usda.gov/wsf/