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Water managers prepare for the drought of today and future in Montana

Posted at 1:54 PM, Dec 05, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-05 15:54:57-05

HELENA — Drought is a normal climatic condition here in Montana and we are in the midst of it now.

The northwest corner is experiencing moderate to severe drought and about a quarter of the state currently has abnormally dry conditions.

“Montana is a state of extremes. One of our biggest extremes are just drought conditions and where drought occurs in a given year can have huge and catastrophic impacts to, you know, not only our food production, but our economy and the ability of farmers and ranchers to kind of make it from season to season," Kelsey Jencso, Montana's State Climatologist, told MTN News.

The Montana Climate Office keeps track of all things weather and environment here in the Treasure State using a network of over 100 weather, soil moisture and snow monitoring stations.

Jencso said 2020 was a particularly expensive recent drought year; "We spent over $100 million to support farmers in the process of mitigating agricultural losses just through the farm services agency or USDA FSA program. That's just one of twelve programs that exist to kind of support communities as they're impacted by natural disasters such as drought."

Drought is a hazard that’s projected to be more severe and longer lasting with warming temperatures in the decades to come.

“We need to better understand locally from county to county or watershed to watershed and that's really where we see the impacts of climate change at local scales," Jencso said.

Montana Snotel

Our watersheds are currently in need of moisture. The snow water equivalent is below normal for the basins of western Montana. For example, the Upper Missouri watershed in the Helena Valley is at 47% right now. That's just 0.6 inches higher than the minimum - the lowest recorded value - for December 5. Explore more SNOTEL data here:

So, what can be done to better address drought impacts when they occur and how can Montana be more resilient in preparing for drought before it occurs?

To answer those questions, a new Drought Management Plan was recently debuted by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

See Related: Montana Drought Taskforce launches new website, new strategic plan

“As far as accountability for drought management and response, it does allow the public to see who's in charge of what and where they can go for support. And as far as accountability for implementing some of the recommendations that we've identified, I mean, that is one of the challenges because it is so intertwined between the Legislature and the Governor and different state agencies," Cori Hach, DNRC's Water Planning, Implementation and Communication Bureau Chief, told MTN News.

You can help managers keep track of drought season-to-season. 

A live ongoing questionnaire called the Montana Drought Impacts Reporter is for those with knowledge of local conditions. Users can upload photos and select how dry or wet the environment is based on their knowledge.

According to Michael Downer, a Drought Program Coordinator with DNRC, over the summer, reports from Glacier, Toole and Liberty counties identified a pocket of drought that wasn’t accurately reflected by the U.S. Drought Monitor.