By Ron VandenBoom
It may be dry as a bone, but to the National Drought Policy Commission, north-central Montana could be experiencing above-average rainfall. With that conclusion, it would mean no help for farmers suffering from a very real drought.
That's the conflict Toole County Commissioner Tom Gordon and Liberty County Commissioner Ed Diemert are trying to resolve in counties across the state as they stump county commissions, water districts and state agencies advocating a better weather-monitoring system.
The duo has dubbed themselves The Drought Guys hoping to make people aware that a better weather-reporting system is needed.
"We know it's dry (and) everybody here knows it's dry," Gordon told a group of officials Monday at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Building in Havre. "But according to the data that is being collected, we're not dry enough."
Current monitoring systems used by federal agencies calculate moisture on a quarterly and yearly average, which does not accurately reflect when the moisture falls, the duration between rainfalls, or the moisture content of the soil, Gordon said. "We believe the criteria for determining drought conditions should include additional data."
Heavy rainfall in months when it is least useful could boost the quarterly or yearly averages and not reflect a lack of rainfall during the months of May or June, when it is most needed. Gordon also pointed to the locations of current monitoring systems, claiming many were chosen to keep track of data such as stream runoff and are in the worst areas for helping the rancher or farmer.
"They were located where we least needed them," he said, adding that many give information that is not an accurate reflection of the farmer's field or rancher's range.
The new system, if approved by the counties, will be located so that coverage areas overlap, giving a more complete picture, and include terrain used by farmers and ranchers, Gordon said.
Gordon and Diemert's plan will be to eventually install five new Vantage Pro-Plus weather-monitoring stations in Toole, Liberty, Glacier, Pondera, Hill, Blaine, Cascade, Choteau, and Teton counties. Eventually they would like to see the system extended statewide.
The cost of each station is $1,805, with additional "in kind" costs from the counties that will include installation, protection, and monitoring of the system. The eventual cost per county, Gordon said, is estimated to be $9,025.
Each station will be capable of detecting barometric pressure, precipitation, temperature, wind speed and direction, soil or water temperature, and more. The equipment can measure soil moisture at depths of 2 to 40 inches.
The system is computerized and comes with a monitoring pad capable of recording data at 30-minute intervals. The data can be transferred to a personal computer capable of printing charts and graphs.
Twenty-four county commissioners have so far endorsed the project, signing a letter addressed to Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs and the Montana Drought Advisory Committee.
Gordon said he has also received assurances from federal agencies that data collected by the system would be accepted.
The Drought Guys expect to have the first system installed by the end of August.
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said this morning the Hill County commissioners are supportive of the idea, but have not agreed to purchase any of the units for Hill County.
"We don't know yet how we'd fund the project," she said.
She said the commissioners will be meeting with other interested groups on July 17 to discuss the system, and funding will be one of the issues discussed.
She said the commissioners will be looking at grants as a possible funding source and suggested that the county might want to look at becoming involved as part of a pilot project.
Bessette said it will be month before any decision is made on the project.