Heavy snowfall may provide mixed blessing


The chance of drought continuing in Montana is still real, but the snow the state received in the last week was a good shot in the arm, a government official said today.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of rapidly rising temperatures later this week has city officials preparing for possible flooding.

Most of the state received snow starting early last week, along with very cold temperatures in many areas. In fact, Havre was the cold spot in the nation Saturday with a low of 23 below zero.

Jerry Beard, snow survey supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the the impact the snowpack will have on stream flows in the state depends on the amount of precipitation and the rate of snowmelt in the spring.

"We could do better than last year, but if it's a dry spring it could make it worse," he said.

The amount of snowfall and the rapid warming predicted - the National Weather Service expects highs in Havre in the 40s on Wednesday and 60s on Thursday - raises another concern, that of flooding.

Gary Schaub, deputy director of public works for Havre, said his department is not extremely concerned about flooding in the city. Frozen drains could cause problems, but the Public Works Department has steamers ready to thaw them as necessary.

"If it all comes off in a couple of hours we're going to have a mess, but we're prepared," Schaub said.

He added that the department plans to begin removing snow from the downtown streets starting at midnight tonight. City crews will try to have as much gone by morning as possible.

"We don't know if we'll have it all hauled away, but we're going to try," Schaub said.

Montana and much of the surrounding region are struggling with four to five years of drought conditions. Parts of a region from eastern Missouri to Montana and south to eastern California are still listed by the National Drought Monitor as having extreme to exceptional drought conditions. Heavy snow and rain that fell in parts of Montana early last June helped offset the problem, but the moisture in the state is still far below normal.

The amount of snowpack, which is what supplies most of the stream flow in the state, has jumped much higher since the beginning of February. At that point, most river basins and headwaters in the state were significantly behind the average amount of snow moisture, and behind most of the averages from the same date last year.

Now the trend has reversed. Fifteen of the 21 sites reported by the NRCS are above last year's level, and most of those are near or above the historical average for this date.

The St. Mary and Milk River basins are still below average and below the amount of snowpack they had last year. The snow water equivalent today is at 84 percent of normal, compared with 111 percent of normal on this date last year.

The water level in Fresno Reservoir, which was built in the 1930s to store irrigation water and for flood control, is in much better shape than it was last year. The reservoir filled with the runoff from the early June storms and has stayed higher since then than it has in several years.

The conservation pool, which is stored irrigation water, is 52 percent of average today, compared with 13 percent of average on this date last year.

The low level of the reservoir - it was at 44 percent of its average water level on June 1 - was credited by representatives of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the reservoir, with stopping the flooding after June's heavy rain and snowstorms.

The reservoir's level was at 160 percent of average by June 18.

Beard said the amount of snowpack in the mountains could still increase. The accumulation is considered about 80 percent complete by March 1, he said.

"So we've got a good chance of gaining some more snowpack in the next few weeks," he said.

The amount of runoff to the streams, reservoirs and lakes is still likely to be below average, Beard said. Because the soil and vegetation are so dry because of the accumulated effects of drought, 15 percent to 20 percent of the runoff is likely to be lost restoring soil moisture, he said.

But the final effects of that also depend on spring precipitation, he added.

"We never know for sure. That's kind of the last bit of information that comes along to us in figuring what our runoff will be," he said.


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