Some areas along the High Line might be flush with water, but much of Montana is suffering from drought. Next year may not get any better, so the state wants to improve its drought plan.
On Thursday, the Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee heard all the ways the dog days of summer and climate change are worsening Montana’s drought and affecting the state’s wildlife and agriculture.
“This has been one of the most challenging seasons I’ve had in my 11 years as commissioner,” said John Rowan, Musselshell Deputy Chief Water Commissioner.
The year didn’t start off bad, but by February and March, signs of a drought year started appearing. Warm temperatures in late winter meant the mountain snowpack – which was almost normal across the state as of March - melted early, and conditions didn’t improve from there.
“June is typically one of our biggest months east of the Divide. We saw well-below-average precipitation almost statewide in June, and that’s had a big impact on our streamflows and current conditions as far as relative wetness in the mountains,” said Lucas Zukiewicz, Natural Resources Conservation Service climate specialist.
Low precipitation and higher-than-normal temperatures intensified the drought, although Montana has gotten a few reprieves as short bouts of rain and cooler temperatures moved through.
Still, Don Britton of the National Weather Service in Great Falls said the average temperature in Montana for July was 45.3 degrees, more than 4 degrees above normal. According to the 14-day outlook, there’s more than a 33-percent chance of temperatures remaining above normal. That could help continue the 15-month streak of record-setting high average global temperatures measured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Southwestern and south-central Montana have seen the worst conditions. An indicator called the Palmer Drought Index shows severe drought in western Montana and extreme drought in south-central Montana, which has only just recovered from the severe drought of 2012. Only northeastern Montana is rated as slightly moist.
Wayne Berkas, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, said the drought has caused many rivers to drop to below-average levels. Streams in the Kootenai, Clark Fork, Upper Missouri and Yellowstone basins are all running low, except for some higher mountain streams.
“The Yellowstone River at Sidney is in the much-below-normal range. I got a call from Montana-Dakota Utilities, and they weren’t getting enough water to operate their plant from the pump site they had. They’re working with the (Army) Corps of Engineers to go farther out in the river to get more water. So that’s an indication of how low the flows are on the Yellowstone River,” Berkas said.
Only the northeast is doing OK, since recent rains have helped the lower Missouri basin hold on to average flows and allowed the one standout, the Milk River, to set new records for high flow at this time of year, Berkas said.
Fishermen are already well aware that streamflows are dangerously low and the water is getting too warm for fish on some rivers. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks water conservation specialist Stephen Begley said hoot-owl restrictions – no fishing from 2 p.m. to midnight - are still in effect for 13 rivers, and no fishing at all is allowed on the Jefferson River and three sections of the Big Hole River.
With streams running so low, Begley said FWP is having to make water-rights calls to keep enough water flowing for fish in some streams, including the Shields, Tongue and Smith rivers. (Clarification from Stephen Begley, 08/25/2016: FWP has a contract for 15,000 acre-feet of water from the Painted Rocks Storage Project to augment the BItterroot River during the irrigation season when demand is especially high. FWP has worked with the DNRC on these water releases and so has not had to make a call to irrigators.)
“The Blackfoot River on Tuesday (dropped to) 500 (cubic feet per second). We’ve been working very closely with the drought committee there and did one round of warning-and-call letters. We’ll likely be doing another round there,” Begley said.
Normally, the Blackfoot River flows at 800 cfs at this time of year.
With streams running low, reservoirs being taxed, and soils and vegetation drying out, the Drought Advisory committee placed 14 counties under drought alerts, meaning the counties should take water conservation into consideration. But it appears few governments are equipped to adjust for drought. Of 68 communities that responded to a Department of Environmental Quality inquiry, only seven had formal contingency plans and 33 have no plan, said DEQ Public Water Bureau Chief John Dillard.
None of the communities in the first four counties to get drought alerts are having issues with water, but four other communities are encountering water scarcity problems, including West Yellowstone, Laurel, Broadus and Melstone, Dillard said.
The lack of preparedness is why the committee is holding four forums across the state to get feedback from the public on how it should update the state’s drought response plan and what communities need to do to make their plans more effective. The forums will be at the Billings Public Library on Sept. 7, the Bozeman Public Library on Sept. 8 and the Missoula Public Library on Sept. 13.
The Havre forum took place on Aug. 16, and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said he was asked why Havre needed a drought plan after all the rain it’s received.
“I explained that now is a great time to have this discussion because (drought) will come. It may not be this year – good for you. But there are other parts of the state are scratching their heads. You don’t want to wait for this to occur before you have a plan in place,” Cooney said. “A lot of discussion needs to happen at the local level to be properly prepared.”