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Number of counties plagued by drought grows

 


HELENA - Hopes that Montana's rainy spring would setback the lingering drought have withered in the hot, dry weather of July, worsening conditions across much of the state, the Drought Advisory Committee was told Thursday.

The committee decided Lincoln County should join Beaverhead County as those areas with severe drought and it added 14 more counties to a list of 18 again fighting drought.

Reports given the committee at its monthly meeting were ominous: It's hot and dry, and it's going to stay that way for a while.

Conditions have deteriorated rapidly around Montana in the past month, just as state officials feared. Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs, committee chairman, said at last month's meeting, ''Anywhere in Montana, we're only five days away from a drought.''

The message was the same on all fronts Thursday.

''Things in general have dried out,'' said Rick Bondy, division engineer in the state Water Resources Bureau.

Gina Loss of the National Weather Service warned that drought conditions are likely to ''persist or intensify through September.

''I was cautiously optimistic early on, and it's kind of turned around,'' said Roy Kaiser, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

''It's obvious that drought recovery has eluded us in Montana,'' added Kathleen Williams, manager of the water resource program in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. ''We're back in it.''

The result will be fishing closures; dry irrigation ditches; shallow, hot streams threatening fisheries; shriveling wheat in the fields; and growing potential for wildfires.

The counties put on ''drought alert'' status because of worsening conditions were Broadwater, Gallatin, Garfield, Jefferson, Lake, Liberty, Mineral, Missoula, Park, Pondera, Powell, Prairie, Silver Bow and Toole. That leaves 22 of the 56 counties officially free of any drought label, although officials believe that number will soon plummet with the gloomy weather forecast.

Southwest and extreme northwest Montana are in the worst shape.

Loss said the outlook is for continued hot temperatures and dry skies. With only isolated exceptions, there has been no rainfall in July, and last month was the 30th driest June in 109 years, she said.

Between April 1 and the end of last week, just 19 of 55 reporting stations in Montana had above-normal precipitation and 12 of those were in northeast and north-central Montana.

''This is significantly less than we should be getting over a lot of areas,'' Loss said. ''I wish I had good news.''

Kaiser said the state's problems are caused by a combination of repeated years of drought sucking moisture from deep soil, record high temperatures in May and June depleting the last-season snowpack, and the absence of any early summer rains.

Some of the major trouble spots are the Yaak and Marias rivers, Clark Canyon Reservoir with only 17 percent of its normal water, and the Big Hole and Thompson rivers where fishing closures on some stretches are likely soon.

The Missouri River at Toston, Jefferson River and West Gallatin River also have extremely low flows.

Throughout southwestern Montana, rivers are faring poorly with as little as a fourth of their usual water for this time of year, and a worst-case scenario is emerging, Williams said.

Peggy Stringer of the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service said the spring rains came in time to help create a big winter wheat crop, but the lack of rain since then is jeopardizing the spring wheat.

However, the condition of most reservoirs is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak assessment.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs hold an average of 94 percent of their usual mid-July water and the state-owned reservoirs average 96 percent.

 

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