Panel says drought is not over yet


HELENA - The state Drought Advisory Committee said Thursday that Montana is facing a moderate chance of drought this summer, changing the state's status from a condition of continuing drought.

The panel was told that spring moisture has capped many mountain ranges with near-normal snow levels, and many reservoir levels have improved. But drought conditions persist in other areas, such as Beaverhead County.

The panel agreed that a few months of moisture is not enough to keep the state from returning to drought conditions if a hot, dry summer hits Montana.

''The potential for us to slip back is greater than if we were coming off several normal years,'' said Jesse Aber, with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. ''We're moving ahead, but we still have the long term drought impacts that follow.''

He said the prediction of a ''moderate'' chance of drought-like conditions this summer means the panel is cautiously optimistic that the state is working out of the lingering drought.

The panel did decide to list 18 counties in drought alert status because they did not receive enough moisture to overcome the lingering drought. Beaverhead County remained in 'severe' drought condition. But the panel classified the state's counties as ''neutral'' on chances of a drought.

The panel meets again next month to review the state's conditions.

Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs said the panel's prediction does not affect official drought declarations or government emergency relief programs.

The state received above-normal precipitation from February through April, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Gina Loss.

''The shift started around the turn of the calendar year,'' she said.

Roy Kaiser, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said mountain snowpack is above normal in many places. And cool weather has kept much of the snow from melting, meaning it could be around late into the summer.

Some of the best snowpack can be found in the Missoula area, he said. The Bitterroot River drainage snowpack is 122 percent of normal, while the upper Clark Fork is 101 percent of normal.

Areas south of Dillon and in the Sun River drainage are still far too dry, he said.

The water pouring into the reservoirs means a number of them will be able to resume fairly normal operating schedules, and supply needed midsummer irrigation water, said Tim Felchle, with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Some reservoirs, such as Bighorn Lake, are still too low to release enough water to deal with donwstream recreation and agriculture needs, he said.

Farmers are having a great spring with good crop conditions and soil moisture, said Peggy Stringer with the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service.

''We're looking at good conditions out there,'' she said. ''Those farmers are smiling.''


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