Rain in a field

Rain clouds roll in from the west as a light drizzle falls on a farm’s empty field Thursday in Shepherd. Precipitation has been rare this month, as totals have been lower than usual throughout most of the region.

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Montana saw a drier than usual March that has agriculture and wildland fire officials worried.

“I don’t know that we’ve had an end of March map look like this ever, which is pretty concerning” said Michael Downey, Water Planning Section supervisor for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Downey spoke following presentations to the Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Committee during an online meeting Thursday. The map he was referring to shows the state’s drought status, which in eastern Montana continues to look dire.

Drought map

This map shows drought conditions across Montana as of Thursday.

Ag

One example of the dryness in eastern Montana is Glasgow. It has gone 132 days with less than a quarter-inch of total daily precipitation, the longest period on record.

Liberty County wheat farmer Vince Mattson said his region is “horribly dry” and has suffered heavy winds throughout the winter. “Our winter wheat is struggling to get going,” he said.

“If we don’t get something significant in the next two to three weeks, it’s going to get ugly real fast,” Mattson added.

Southeastern Montana has also been hard hit by extended drought and enters the spring with a moisture deficit that could hamper the growth of livestock forage, said Mike Honeycutt, an executive officer of the Montana Department of Livestock. What’s more, he said the region’s hay reserves are stretched thin, and prices have risen, because of demand in Oklahoma and Texas.

“From our aspect, we’re going to have to really be on top of this early in the water season, because we may find ourselves reacting earlier than we typically would because of the persistence of several years of having low precipitation,” Honeycutt said.

Fire

This month’s drought maps are reminiscent of large fire years, said Michael DeGrosky, DNRC’s fire and aviation chief. Southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead County remains dry and contains heavy fuel loads. Although the region around Billings received normal precipitation, DeGrosky said fuels can dry out quickly, changing the situation “very rapidly” which could put the region in high to extreme fire danger.

“The relationship between drought and wildland fire is complex and simple,” he said. “When there’s drought and it’s abnormally dry, it dries out fuels … and we tend to get more fires.

“As fuels get drier they release more energy so fire spreads more rapidly and is harder to control.”

Right now all the forecasts look very similar to 2012, the year in which Montana saw its largest structure loss from fire, DeGrosky said.

“This is not encouraging.”

Dry March

This graph shows the shortage of precipitation in the Flathead River Basin in March.

March

Snow surveys by the Natural Resources Conservation Service point to how bad March has been for snowfall. Much of the western third of the state saw precipitation that was less than half of normal. The averages are based on precipitation between 1981 and 2010.

Zeroing in on different river basins across Montana, the Bitterroot received just over an inch compared to an average of around 4 inches. On the Flathead, March saw more than 1 inch but is normally closer to 4-½ inches; and on the Madison, March precipitation was under 2 inches when the average is closer to 3.5 inches.

“For March it’s been extremely dry across the northern two-thirds of the state,” said Lucas Zukiewicz, water supply specialist for the NRCS. “It’s really just been this last week, since last Friday, that we’ve started to see improvement across the southern tier.”

For irrigators, the water supply looks good at most reservoirs with the exception of Clark Canyon and Fresno, which hasn’t received water from the St. Mary’s Canal because of repair work. There are questions about Canyon Ferry, Tiber and Bighorn reservoirs because the soil is so dry that upstream runoff could be limited. Irrigators may also pull more water from streams earlier than usual, according to Clayton Jordan of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

“It’s hard to predict how that water supply will turn out,” he said.

On the flip side, the dry soils mean lower chances of flooding on most water basins, the exceptions being the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers.

Forecasts

In the short term, there’s the potential for a “pretty strong cold front” moving through Montana on Monday, said Arin Peters, a senior service hydrologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Beyond that, looking out 14 days, there’s a significant chance of warmer, drier weather.

For the next three months, forecasters are uncertain what may happen, with equal chances of above or below normal precipitation.

“We’ve still got time, we can make up a lot of ground, but we’re not sitting as pretty as we sometimes are,” said Troy Blandford, a geographic information system specialist for DNRC.

More information can be found online at: https://mslservices.mt.gov/geographic_information/maps/drought/.

This article originally ran on billingsgazette.com.

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