By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
While the possibility of slipping back into drought is far from over, water should not be in short supply for towns and irrigators in the Milk River Valley this summer.
"We're in a lot better shape than we were last year at this time. We got relief from that big storm that moved through (north-central Montana) last June," said Tim Felchle, hydraulic engineer with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Felchle said the reservoirs in the Milk River Irrigation Project should be able to supply enough water to meet the needs in the Milk River Valley through the summer.
A deluge in early June filled Fresno Reservoir, and allowed a water level that was much higher than average to be carried over to this year.
The storm, which covered most of the state, dropped from more than 2 inches of rain south of Havre to more than 7 inches of precipitation in the Sweet Grass Hills. The runoff from the rain and snow, which began falling on June 7, took Fresno from its low point of 3,433 acre-feet in April 2002 to more than 100,000 acre-feet on June 17.
The better conditions are not limited to the Milk River.
"All the reservoirs are looking pretty decent," Felchle said.
In the Milk River Valley, Fresno Reservoir west of Havre is 86.5 percent full, 140 percent of average for this time of year.
Nelson Reservoir near Harlem is 81 percent full, 114 percent of average.
Lake Sherburne in Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which supplies the water for the St. Mary Diversion to the Milk River, is about 33 percent full, 96 percent of average.
The diversion, built early in the 1900s to supply irrigation water, provides about half of the water in the Milk River in a normal year.
During 2001, the fourth ongoing year of drought in the region, the diversion supplied about 90 percent of the water in the river.
The better conditions also are reflected in streamflows, although the flows might drop over the summer. The monthly mean streamflows for March were normal at all eight long-term U.S. Geological Survey gauging stations, the USGS reported.
Streamflows on the Clark Fork River at St. Regis, the Marias River near Shelby and Rock Creek below Horse Creek were all slightly above average, the agency said. The Blackfoot River near Bonner, the Middle Fork of the Flathead River near West Glacier and the Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs were at average, while the Yellowstone River at Billings was at 94 percent of average and the Yaak River at Troy was at 89 percent.
The three hydroelectric reservoirs in western Montana - Lake Koocanusa, Flathead Lake and Hungry Horse Reservoir - had above average storage. Canyon Ferry Lake near Helena was near average. Fort Peck Lake and Bighorn Lake were at about 74 percent of average storage.
Experts in the state say that while a dry spring and summer could keep parts of the state in drought, conditions are better than they have been for several years.
But the process of overcoming the effects of several years of drought will take time.
Gina Loss, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, said the cumulative shortfall of precipitation at the Weather Service reporting station at Fort Assinniboine from January 1996 to December 2002 is 10.77 inches - nearly a full year's precipitation.
The yearly average at the reporting station at the fort is 13.02 inches.
That cumulative deficit exists despite headway made in 2002. Havre reached its annual average of 11.16 by the first week of August, and ended the year up about 2.5 inches above average, at 13.71 inches.
But the long-term damage is still there.
"When you get that kind of cumulative deficit you not only need average moisture, you need a surplus to make up the deficit," said Jesse Aber, water resources planner for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and member of the governor's drought planning committee.
Aber said April and May are key months, especially for north-central Montana. Those are the months storms typically start moving from the south and west across the rest of the state.
"When we have a hot, abnormally dry April, we're in trouble," he said.
The signs are that 2003 could be a much better year, he added.
"It's the beginning of what looks like a normal ag production year," Aber said.
Roy Kaiser, water supply specialist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, said what is needed are gentle rains, not downpours.
"Last year's gains were surface gains. What we need now is some nice gentle rain to settle in for a few days to soak in," he said.
Crop yields could be much better this year, though the precipitation last summer didn't help some ag producers much. The timing of alternating heat and rain over the summer reduced yields and often made harvesting grain and hay difficult.
Winter wheat was devastated by the extremely dry winter and spring. Farmers planted more than 575,000 acres of the crop in Blaine, Chouteau, Hill and Liberty counties but only harvested 182,500, the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service reports. Farmers replanted many of the acres abandoned to spring wheat.
Spring wheat yields, hit by hail, high temperatures in July and pests like drought-resistant weeds and sawflies, had harvests far below the 30 bushels an acre or more predicted in mid-June.
Conditions last fall and a mild winter have set the stage for a much better harvest of winter wheat, depending on precipitation this spring and summer.
Montana farmers planted 1.85 million acres of winter wheat last fall, the highest amount since they planted 2.15 million in 1996.
"We're looking at much better winter wheat conditions this year," said Peggy Stringer, statistician for the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service. "If this holds true until the crop's harvested, we're probably looking at about average abandonment. Rain makes grain, so if we get precipitation we'll be good. If not, we'll be hurting again."