Dwindling Montana snowpack may point to summer drought

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Dwindling snowpack may point to summer drought

By JODY ROBBINS, Flathead Publishing Group

There's little conjecture left when it comes to the snowpack and the state of water affairs in Montana at this point. Not to be a naysayer, but it's bad.

Reports from agencies across the state add up to nothing good for man or beast.

"We are real dependent on the spring rains," said Kurt Hafferman, manager of the water resources regional office in Kalispell. "Otherwise I don't think we've seen a year when we may only have 50 or 60 percent of the normal supply of water, and that's going to have an effect on a lot of people.

"It's the second year in a row with low totals, so I expect some consequences regardless of the June rains. Where we'll see the worst of it is in August and September when the rivers start dropping."

The West Valley - in the vicinity of Farm to Market Road and West Valley School - has already been feeling the effects of the dry winter.

"In that area we have a shallow aquifer with a limited storage capacity and may see some ground water effects near the edges of that aquifer," Hafferman said. "We're already seeing some complaints this winter of people having wells dry up and there's not much we can do and there's not much people can do except deepen their well."

The South Fork and the Flathead River are running about normal, mostly because of power generation taking place at the Hungry Horse Dam over the winter.

The surface water flow of the Whitefish and Stillwater rivers are more indicative of the actual situation, both running at about 60 to 70 percent of normal, a trend which Hafferman expects to continue throughout the year.

Hungry Horse Dam Facility Manager Ralph Carter's latest numbers confirm the powder dry facts with the latest runoff forecast for the reservoir coming in at 61.5 percent of normal.

"At this stage it means if we stay at our minimum flows like we are now and no power emergencies come up - which they can - we have a 50 percent chance of filling within 20 feet of the top of the dam," Carter said, noting that it is usually the excess water over that 20-foot mark that is required for water augmentation for the salmon on the main stem of the Columbia River.

"We try to fill around the end of June, first of July," Carter said. "If we don't get within that 20-foot range, I don't know what we'll do about the salmon and we won't have as much water available for power generation either."

Last month's snow pack forecast rated the fourth lowest since such records were kept in 1929, Carter said. The last winter similar to this one came in 1977, according to the records.

The lack of water could hit residents of the Haskill Basin, where a water rights crunch might be felt with junior right-holders (mostly those water rights issued in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s) being bumped from the water table to make room for those with older claims.

"The Haskill Basin is over appropriated and if everybody exercises their rights to the full extent, there's going to be people with junior grants that the water might just not be available for this year," Hafferman said.

"We at least want to get the word out to be aware of your water right and priority date and you need to be aware of the fact that others could call for your water," he said. "This year may be one of the first that this valley is dealing with who has a right to the water."

Ashley Creek has a number of old water rights on it and could be a problem area this year as well, though it hasn't before. But many new water rights have been granted since the last time there was a year this dry, according to Hafferman.

"Be kind to your neighbors and realize there are people with prior rights and dealing with them and sharing the water is always a much better solution than insisting on water rights that may or may not be enforceable," Hafferman said. "If anyone has questions about rights and priority dates, we do have all the records on file in the office and you can call us at 752-2288."

On the other side of Glacier National Park the forecasts are no better with the Teton River Basin, Milk River Basin and the Marias River Basin all at less than 50 percent of normal snowpack. The eastern crossing of the Milk River (where it comes back into the United States from Canada) is running at around 18 percent of normal river flow, which could affect the 110,000 irrigated acres in the Milk River area. The Fresno Reservoir has a total holding capacity of 103,000 acre feet and is sitting right now at 16,134 acre feet, 16 percent of normal.

"There should be at least 50,000 in there at this point and that reservoir also furnishes municipal water for Havre, Chinook and Harlem," said Bob Larson, water resources general manager for the Havre and Glasgow regional area. "We could always get additional moisture, but we need that snow to recharge our rivers, reservoirs and stock ponds.

"This is the first time in my four years here that we haven't received any major runoff in the spring. I manage 18 counties and 12 of those last year were disaster counties and I'm looking for at least that many again."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), March 21, 2001


April 05, 2001 Snowpack remains at record-low levels statewide

Associated Press

BILLINGS - Snowpack across Montana reached new, record-low water contents in seven river basins, according to a report released Wednesday by the National Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman.

The report, which measured snowpack in place April 1, also said streamflows were expected to be far below average. If those forecasts hold true as the year progresses, "there will be severe water shortages," said Roy Kaiser, a water supply specialist with the agency.

Statewide, snowpack was 58 percent of average and just 65 percent of last year's levels. Statewide streamflow forecasts for April through July average just 43 percent to 47 percent of average, according to the report.

"March was a month where we needed to receive a lot of wet spring moisture, but that did not occur in most areas," Kaiser said.

The highest snowpack level - 71 percent of average in the upper Missouri headwaters, near Helena - was the third lowest on record.

The most severe conditions existed in northwest and northcentral Montana, where storms this month produced more than 2 inches of precipitation in the form of snow and boosted snowpack totals some, Kaiser said.

The river basins setting record-low water contents were the Bitterroot, Flathead, Gallatin, Kootenai, St. Mary, Lower Yellowstone and Upper Yellowstone. The Kootenai was lowest, at 51 percent of average and just 52 percent of last year, the report said.

The U.S. Drought Monitor showed severe drought in nearly two-thirds of Montana. Only the northeast area is not considered dry.

Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs this month designated all 56 Montana counties as drought areas and asked county commissioners to prepare plans for possible drought.

"If we get normal spring precipitation, it's going to be a dry summer. And it's going to take lots of snow to get us back to normal," said Jim Melstad, who works on public drinking water issues for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The period in which snowpack accumulates in the state is nearly over, Kaiser said. "We're probably going to end up where we're at," he said.

http://missoulian.com/archives/index.inn? loc=detail&doc=/2001/April/05-125-news14.txt

-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 08, 2001.

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