Snowpack brings hope to Hi-Line
Recent snowfall may cause slippery streets and the need to shovel sidewalks, but it is a bright spot for local agricultural producers and for the local economy.
"It's got people's spirits up. People have to move around in it, work in it, but nobody's complaining," said Brad Ruhkamp, owner of Wild Horse Seeds north of Havre.
Snow has blanketed the state the day after Christmas. The Havre forecast calls for a chance of precipitation and highs in the 30s and 40s over the weekend, with cooler temperatures and a possibility of more precipitation next week.
The snowpack, in the plains and valleys as well as the mountains, is giving the state an opportunity to move toward a more normal water year after drought has persisted for up to seven years in areas of Montana.
"It appears we are moving into a good old Montana winter," said Jess Aber of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The water season is still early, and the state faces years of accumulated water deficits from the drought. Roy Kaiser of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service said a lot depends on future temperatures, snowfall, and spring and early summer rains.
"We're less than halfway through our moisture season. We can get great improvement or not so great," he said.
Meteorologist Rick Dittman of the National Weather Service office in Great Falls said that an encouraging thing about recent snowfall is that it has pretty well covered the state, with some plains areas reporting accumulations of 2 to 3 feet.
Major storms in the last few years have often been limited in area or duration, and have not significantly impacted the drought, he said.
"It's a very positive thing about this, is that the pattern has been pretty widespread," he said.
Dittmann said the western edge of the Golden Triangle probably received the least amount of snow on the Montana prairies. Places like Cut Bank, Conrad, Fairfield and Shelby have comparatively low snowpack, he said.
Dittman said no major storms are predicted across the state in the near future, but snow may accumulate from minor storms.
Owen McDonagh of the Hill County NRCS office said the plains snowpack is the best Hill County has seen in years, but the amount varies in different parts of the county. He has heard reports that the western part of the county has not received nearly as much as the eastern part.
Kaiser said the overall impacts of the moisture will depend both on how much more snow and rain the state receives and how quickly the snow melts off.
The Milk River is forecast to run at about 48 percent to 65 percent of normal from April through July, compared with last year's forecast of 46 percent to 60 percent for last April through July. That assumes average snowpack through the rest of the season, and could go up or down depending on the actual snowfall.
Aber is optimistic that the soil moisture will improve. Even if the snow melts during warm periods over the winter, it will collect in low places on the plains and replenish aquifers, he said.
The statistics on winter wheat and soil moisture are starting to improve over the figures from Nov. 30. At that time, the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service reported that 73 percent of topsoil in the state was short or very short of moisture, compared with 66 percent short or very short in 2002. Subsoil moisture was rated as 89 percent short or very short, compared with 74 percent in 2002.
The report issued Jan. 5 showed 58 percent of topsoil short or very short, an improvement of 8 percentage points. The subsoil stayed at 89 percent short or very short, but improved with 43 percent reported very short compared with 51 percent very short at the end of November.
The amount of winter wheat reported poor or very poor stayed the same at 23 percent, but the amount rated good or excellent improved from 29 percent to 33 percent.
Kaiser said the snowpack will help protect the winter wheat from further damage.
Ruhkamp said the snow not only will help the winter wheat but also will provide more moisture for planting spring wheat. More snow and spring and summer rains are still needed, but farmers are much more optimistic, he said.
"This makes it a lot easier," Ruhkamp said.