By Tim Leeds
North-central Montana is once again in the national eye for weather this time because of the ongoing drought.
The group that classifies drought conditions has given the area its most severe rating D4, or exceptional drought and the photos that convinced the group's members to give that classification are displayed on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site.
Jesse Aber, water resources planner on Gov. Judy Martz's drought advisory task force, said he can imagine what members of the drought classification group said when they saw the photos, taken by Mike Waite of U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg's staff: "We'll know D4 drought when we see it, and these pictures are D4 drought."
The group classified Liberty and Toole counties as having exceptional drought conditions April 29. After seeing more photos taken by Waite, the group extended the classification to include Hill and Chouteau counties.
Roy Kaiser, of the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said recent moisture is helping, but much more is needed across the state. The situation in north-central Montana is especially critical, he said.
"That classification of D4 is the first time it's been used in Montana, possibly in the nation," he said.
Western Montana has received more snow, and could be in the reverse situation. Aber said areas could actually experience flooding if the mountain snowpack melts too quickly.
But much of eastern Montana is still in trouble.
"We're going to monitor the conditions month by month. Any of those areas in alert (status) or no status could go to severe," Kaiser said. "If we get rain, a lot of rain, they could be improved."
Much of Montana is still far behind average precipitation. The weather year recorded by the National Weather Service starts in October. Aber said some areas of Montana are already 2 to 4 inches behind average precipitation, only seven months into the season. And that deficit is 30 percent of the annual precipitation for some of those areas, he added.
Some areas, like Lewistown, are already 7 inches below average precipation, Aber said.
An area in particular trouble aside from north-central Montana is the lower Yellowstone River. Aber said that since Wyoming is also experiencing severe drought, many tributaries of the river have very little flow.
"That's mainly in the lower Yellowstone. We're watching the upper Yellowstone very closely, but it's not as important as the condition in the lower Yellowstone," Kaiser said.
The crucial period for precipitation and snowmelt in the mountains is the rest of May and June, Aber said. Once summer heat and high winds start, typically in July, precipitation will generally not replenish much moisture in the soil, he said.
"We got a great shot in the arm here the last couple of months," Aber said. "But it's just the beginning of paying back that soil moisture deficit."
A few rains will not be enough to help the situation.
"We need to get well above average moisture 20 to 30 percent above average," he said. "It's the gentle rains that are the crucial ones."
And the snowmelt needs to be gentle too, Aber said.
"The good side is there's still that snow in the hills. The bad side is it still has to pay back the moisture deficit. If it comes in a rush, it won't recharge as well," he said.
There may be some hope for moisture in the next few weeks, but the extended forecast does not look good, the National Weather Service says.
"It looks as though next week there could be a storm situation, but it's still a long ways out," said Ken Mielke of the Weather Service office in Great Falls.
But it looks like an El Nino weather system, where wind conditions cause a dry, warm winter in the United States, is on the way, Mielke said. Temperatures next winter are predicted to be above normal, and precipitation below normal.
The Weather Service has color-coded maps predicting weather patterns in the United States in three-month periods, and the predictions for next winter are dire.
"You can see where the bull's-eye is. It's right over Montana," Mielke said.
The situation in the Milk River basin isn't quite as bad. The headwaters of the Milk have considerably higher snow and moisture than last year. The lack of soil moisture is pulling water out of the Milk as it flows downstream, but Kaiser said the St. Mary Diversion canals that direct water into the Milk River near Glacier National Park have had water in them for some time, and Fresno Reservoir should be in better shape than last year.
But that won't help dryland farmers.
"(The Milk River) takes care of irrigated land, but the problem is in valleys where they haven't had snow," Kaiser said.
The Milk supplies many people in north-central Montana with water for living, including communities on the river and in western Hill County. The Hill County Water District supplies water to people west of Havre by taking water from Fresno.
Even if the Milk has a good supply of water, that shouldn't stop conservation, Aber said.
"They're not going to have a contest for who has the greenest lawn in town this year," he said.
Aber added that the drought task force appreciates the lead Havre took in imposing water restrictions on April 24.
"Big kudos to Havre for putting in water restrictions at the beginning of the season," he said.
The drought task force hopes other communities follow Havre's lead in bringing about awareness of the need for water conservation, he said.
Other north-central communities, including Chinook and the Hill County Water District, have also imposed restrictions.
On the Net:
NOAA climate site: http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/2002/apr/montana.html
NOAA long-range forecasts: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/predictions/90day/