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February Snowfall Brings Promising Streamflow Forecast

Montana Streamflow Forecast as of March 05, 2021.
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Montana Streamflow Forecast as of March 05, 2021.

Montana’s snowfall last month increased the likelihood of near- to slightly above-normal spring and summer streamflows.

February is typically one of Montana’s drier months, but Lucas Zukiewicz says this February may wind up being one of those rare and fortunate exceptions.

"In those areas that really just got a bunch of snow, about 40 percent of this year's total snowpack is made up of just February snowfall. In most cases that would be about 15 to 25 percent of the seasonal total." 

Zukiewicz is a Water Supply Specialist with the U.S. Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman.

He says February’s snow totals were impressive across most of Montana, especially coming off December and January’s relatively dry and warm conditions.

Snow Water Equivalent Percent of Median 1981-2010, as of March 1, 2021.
Credit Natural Resources Conservation Service
Snow Water Equivalent Percent of Median 1981-2010, as of March 1, 2021.

"Some areas in the Bitterroot south of Missoula experienced up to 16 inches of water. And we're not talking about snow depth, we're talking about actual water that was added to the snowpack. And that was record-setting for the high elevations site at the headwaters of Lost Horse Creek." 

Still, some regions had slightly below-normal snowpack March 1st due to lack of early season snowfall, including a handful of basins in southwest and northwest Montana. 

NRCS’s first official streamflow forecast for April through July indicates near- to slightly above-average streamflows for many of the state’s rivers and streams. 

Montana has another month or two until the snowpack peaks and runoff begins in earnest. But that snowpack reservoir won’t go far if spring storms fail to deliver much precip.

"If we don't get any snow or things turned dry from here on out, it's kind of like leaving on a cross-country road trip with your tank two thirds full. You're going to start going the direction you want, but you're not really going to get that far."

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