By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Montana's western mountains and eastern plains are covered with more snow than a year ago, but that doesn't mean the state's lingering drought has loosened its grip, the Drought Advisory Committee learned Friday.
In its first meeting of the year, the committee was warned that the severity of drought this year still will depend on additional snowfall, how it all melts and the amount of spring rain.
''We're looking at conditions better than where we were last year,'' said Roy Kaiser, water supply specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman. ''But without the rains we normally get in May and June, things can slip away from us pretty drastically.''
The committee heard conflicting reports about whether the ground under deep snow in eastern Montana is frozen and, therefore, unable to absorb the needed moisture when melting begins.
If the ground can't sop up the moisture, a rapid melt could lead to flooding and ultimately the water will wash off the eastern plains into rivers that carry it into North Dakota for storage there, said Mel White of the U.S. Geological Survey. In that scenario, Montana would realize little benefit from the deep snow, he added.
The committee agreed to not adjust the existing drought status of any counties from where they stood in November.
Twenty-eight counties in a swath running from southeast to northwest through the center of the state remain in severe drought. Ten are considered moderately dry, eight slightly dry and nine - mostly in northeastern Montana - are not in a drought.
Beaverhead County in southwestern Montana remains the only one still besieged by extreme drought conditions.
Gina Loss of the National Weather Service said some eastern areas of the state were hit by late December-early January snowstorms that have left them with double the usual precipitation for this time of year. But February has been a dry month so far and large areas of the state have less than 40 percent of their normal precipitation, she said.
Compared to recent years, Loss said, the outlook is a little brighter. ''There's some hope things will be better, but it still could be quite bad,'' she said.
Kaiser said mountain snowpack ranges from 50 percent to 89 percent of normal, with the Kootenai, Madison and Smith-Musselshell river basins in the best shape. Conditions are much worse along the Yellowstone River, he said.
Recent rains in some parts of the state did not last long enough to cause severe melting, and temperatures stayed cold enough in higher elevations to change the rain to snow, Kaiser said.
Reports to the committee showed federally operated reservoirs contain an average of about 31 percent less water than normal for mid-February, and state reservoirs hold 33 percent less than usual.