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El Niño Still A Wildcard For Snowpack Forecasts

Current Snow Water Equivalent Basin Percentage of Normal - January 01, 2016
Courtesy USDA NRCS
Current Snow Water Equivalent Basin Percentage of Normal - January 01, 2016

There’s a lot riding on how much precipitation Montana gets this winter and spring. So far, it’s a mixed bag. December’s snowfall helped shore up mountain snowpack in Montana’s southern basins, but some northern basins remain below normal.

Lucas Zukiewicz is a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman. He says recent consistent snowfall helped improve snowpack in all of Montana’s river basins. There are, however, some exceptions.

"The extreme northwest part of the state is generally below normal in terms of snowpack for January 1, but as you move to the headwaters of the upper Clark Fork, we’re actually seeing near normal conditions. Ending the month, we thought we’d get back to normal in those basins, but we really just didn’t get enough snowfall  to bring us to where we need to be on January 1."

Snowpack in eastern Montana’s southern basins is generally above normal. The northern basins aren’t so lucky.

“It’s important in that area because it was really dry through the summer and as we go through the winter we’re really going to need to see a major change in those basins to make sure that we have above normal snowpack going into our spring runoff, just due to the lack of precipitation last summer and the below average stream flows that we saw."

This time last year, Montana’s snowpack was in good shape, only to make a turn for the worse later in the year. Zukiewicz says it’s anyone’s guess what sort of an impact El Niño will have as we reach our peak snowpack season and enter the spring runoff.

You can read the Montana Water Supply Outlook Report from USDA NRCS here.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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