Drought's hold on state is less, but it's not gone


HELENA - Drought's grip on Montana may have loosened a little this year thanks to some well-timed spring rains, but no one should presume years of arid conditions are gone for good, members of the state Drought Advisory Committee concluded Thursday.

A resurgence of persistent hot, dry, windy weather would sap much of the moisture from the ground, lower streams and rivers, and turn green fields brown again, they learned.

''Anywhere in Montana, we're only five days away from a drought,'' said Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, committee chairman. ''We're headed in the right direction, but it's pretty iffy right now.''

Kathleen Williams, from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the good news-bad news scenario extends to Montana's fisheries. The rapid snowmelt in May helped improve spawning conditions for fish, but years of drought have left soils so dry that streamflows still are likely to be lower than normal in some areas, she said.

''Isn't it tempting to be optimistic?'' she said. ''But that's dangerous. We have to grit our teeth and assume things are going to turn around and get worse.''

The committee agreed to add two more counties - Carbon and Stillwater - to the list of 17 counties on drought alert status. Beaverhead County, in the heart of a bone-dry corner of southwestern Montana, remains the only county in severe drought.

Conditions are continuing to worsen in extreme northwestern Montana as rain tapered off in May, said Gina Loss of the National Weather Service. On the other hand, eastern Montana continues to be damp with some areas reporting more than twice the normal precipitation, she said.

Thunderstorms have brought welcome rain in some parts of the state, although the benefit has been spotty, she said. Despite the moisture, rainstorms are followed by warm and windy weather that quickly dries out the soil and prevents it from improving significantly, Loss said.

The weather outlook indicates southwestern Montana can expect continuing or worsening drought, while northeastern Montana should stay green, she added.

The committee was told that 12 of the 17 state-run reservoirs are full or nearly full. Bair, Deadman's Basin and Martinsdale reservoirs - all on the trickling Musselshell River - are in the worst condition.

Curt Lund of the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service said the weather has given farmers and ranchers reason to smile.

The spring rainfall has set the stage for an excellent winter wheat crop with an expected harvest of 64.6 million bushels that would be more than three times last year's production, he said. The forecast yield of 38 bushels per acre is higher than the 10-year average.


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