by Ellen Thompson
Havre Daily News
Representatives of local, state and federal agencies that monitor soil, water and cropland conditions shared sobering news at a meeting Tuesday of the Hill County Drought Committee.
Water restrictions are likely in Havre this summer, Havre public works director Dave Peterson said.
Since the beginning of the year, the Havre area has received 53 percent of normal precipitation, said Joe Broesder, Hill County Extension agent.
The projection for the month of April is that the Milk River will be at about 49 percent of its natural flow, up from 39 percent last month, said Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation water resources regional manager Bob Larson. The natural flow is supplemented by water from the St. Mary's Diversion.
Broesder said a quick ground moisture survey he completed this weekend of sites south of U.S. Highway 2 revealed little moisture at the surface.
With no additional precipitation, winter and spring wheat yields would be about 16 to 18 bushels, he said. With normal spring precipitation, the yield would be 30 to 35 bushels, or about average.
Last year good winter storms, higher soil moisture and spring rains contributed to above-average yields, he said.
"If we get a typical spring, we're going to have average yields. If we don't get a normal spring, we're going to have below average yields," Broesder said.
"If we don't get precipitation, the recrop potential is zero," he said.
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said the commissioners are already discussing the possibility of an early burn ban for the county.
A burn ban is normally in effect by August.
It's a balancing act, Bessette said. There is a benefit to removing the fuel, but controlled burns also pose a threat.
Mike Zook, the Farm Service Agency director in Hill County, said he's heard about a couple controlled burns that got out of control in the last week. Conservation Reserve Program lands must be maintained and fuels removed toward the end of each CRP contract, and many landowners choose to conduct controlled burns to accomplish that, he said.
In particular, the area west of town is dry, having received only half the rain Havre has had, Zook said.
"It's like gasoline," he said. People who have conducted controlled burns have seen walls of flame 13 to 20 feet high.
Zook recommended a countywide burning policy so that rural fire chiefs have guidelines to follow when approving a burn plan. Zook said fire chiefs may feel pressure to approve their neighbors' plans. A policy would mean the burden wasn't on the individual chiefs, but that they could point to a specific policy to suggest changes to the plans.
FSA is planning a CRP burn workshop for April 21, Zook said.
Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation has already instituted a fire ban, said the Montana State University Extension agent at Stone Child College, Mary Ruth St. Pierre.
Beaver Creek Dam manager Tim Herron said the water level at the dam is good, though lower than last year at this time.
"I've got ample water for my irrigators this year," he said. By about July, there might be less water to go around, but that's common, he said.
The level at Fresno Dam, however, is 76 percent of normal and the dam is 43 percent full, Larson said.
"It's going to be another tough year in water rights," he said.
The city of Havre imposed water restrictions in 2002, regulating the timing and frequency of lawn watering. Similar measures are likely this year, Peterson said.
"It's a Catch-22 for us when we have to go on rations because (it means) we're not selling water," Peterson said. The city raises much of the money it uses to pay off its debt for upgrading the water treatment plant by selling water in the summer, but the city must also discourage water use in the summer to conserve water for communities downstream.
People just don't understand that you can't leave the tap running when you're brushing your teeth, Peterson said.
Peterson said the city will look at some ways to keep the parks green, possibly using untreated well water.
"It takes so much work to get them back" after a lean year, he said.
FSA is still accepting applicants to the Crop Disaster Program, authorized last year by Congress, Zook said. The program was made available to areas for loss of crop due to natural causes.
In 2003, the area received 40 percent less than average precipitation and in 2004, there was crop loss due to hail. The program is available to those who can show a 35 percent loss of crop. The government caps its assistance at 95 percent of the value of the crop that was planted.
Zook said his office has been overwhelmed by people signing up. The program took effect March 14, but the office is just receiving all of the software it needs to process the applications. Already the office has booked appointments for the next month.