HELENA - Nearly a third of Montana counties are pinned under the stifling heat and dry skies of severe drought, state officials concluded Thursday after getting a bleak update on conditions statewide.
The state Drought Advisory Committee designated 17 of the 56 counties as undergoing severe drought. A month ago, only two counties were in that category.
The counties tagged with severe drought status are Beaverhead, Carbon, Cascade, Chouteau, Flathead, Gallatin, Glacier, Hill, Jefferson, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Liberty, Lincoln, Madison, Sanders, Stillwater and Teton.
And there's no relief in sight.
''It's going to take time to get into a pattern where the heat is pushed off,'' Gina Loss of the National Weather Service told the committee at its monthly meeting.
The first real respite may not come until the first autumn snowfall, she said.
The committee heard that most of Montana's major rivers hold far less water than normal. Federally operated reservoirs have an average of 74 percent of their usual water and state-owned reservoirs average 84 percent of their typical water for this time of year.
For many cities, this is one of the most arid years since records have been kept, Loss said. Cut Bank is in the midst of its third driest year in 90 years; this is Kalispell's sixth driest year in the past 109; and Great Falls has its 12th driest year since 1893.
Temperatures during July averaged a stunning 11 degrees above normal in northwestern Montana and the state as a whole got only 40 percent of its normal rain for the month, she said. Many places received less than a fourth of their usual precipitation.
Peggy Stringer of the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service said that weather has taken its toll on the land and crops.
''This last month was really hard,'' she said. ''Things look bad for spring grains.''
Although farmers remain optimistic about their winter wheat, total wheat production forecasts are plummeting as the spring crop withers, Stringer said.
The ground has dried out dramatically in the past four weeks, she said.
Just 68 percent of topsoil was short of moisture in mid-July, but that's grown to 97 percent this week. The same is true for deeper soils.
The lack of rain and abundance of heat has wrecked pastures and they are not expected to recover before next year, Stringer said.