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Montana’s Response To Drought And Where It Falls Short

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Freddy Monares: Montana is experiencing severe drought this year that’s fueling wildfires, killing crops and leaving rivers running low and warm. I got a debrief from MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar on the impacts of the extreme conditions, and what the state can do about it now and in the future.

Big picture, how bad is the drought in Montana? 

Shaylee Ragar: It’s historic, Freddy. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 98% of the state is in a severe drought and 11% is experiencing exceptional drought. That means crops can’t grow, fish are under extreme stress and the risk for wildfires is incredibly high.

Troy Blandford, a water system information manager for the state, recently told the Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Committee that Montana is seeing the worst widespread drought since the U.S. Drought Monitor began recording conditions two decades ago.

Blandford: “You know, I can’t say that this is the most severe drought that some areas are seeing, but I can say that statewide, we haven’t seen this in the last 20 years — this extent of these high drought categories basically affecting all counties.”

According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, 2021 is the 4th driest year in the past 127 years. 

Monares: And this year’s drought didn’t come out of nowhere. Forecasts indicated Montana would face a drought this year.

Ragar: Definitely. So back in October it was clear that Montana was not getting the moisture it typically gets. That trend continued all winter and experts knew in early spring it was going to be a really tough year.

A statewide drought declaration was drafted in early June according to records obtained by MTPR outlining that impacts were already being felt. But Gov. Greg Gianforte didn’t sign that declaration until July 1.

Monares: Why not?

Ragar: In a statement, the governor’s spokesperson Brooke Stroyke wrote officials were “hopeful that conditions would change since May and June tend to be the rainiest months in the state, but in the meantime and out of an abundance of preparation, we began drafting an emergency drought declaration in the event we would need one.”

Monares: Did the timing of Gianforte’s declaration have impacts on the ground?

Ragar: Well, not significant impacts. The declaration does open up some aid for ag producers, and it also kind of serves as a flare the state’s shooting up saying it’s in trouble. I’m also making note of it because throughout the summer, Gianforte has been critical of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for taking too long to act.

Gianforte tweeted on July 6 “USDA needs to do more to help now. Our ag producers can't afford unnecessary delays from the federal government.”

Monares: What does the USDA have to say about that?

Ragar: Les Rispens is the acting state director of the Farm Services Agency for USDA, and he says the triggers in place that held off immediate action worked “perfectly.” He says 2021 was the first major drought year that USDA has used the drought monitor as a metric, and he’s happy with the result.

Rispens: “I know not everybody’s happy, but I think at the end of the day, we threaded the needle, right? We stayed right in the middle of the road, I think we did as well as we could have, and I think the drought monitor did exactly what we needed it to.”

Monares: Both the state and federal government can use their powers in drought emergencies to send money and aid to those impacted. What else is the state doing to respond to the crisis?

Ragar: A big component has been monitoring how the drought is progressing. So, state and federal agencies are keeping track of precipitation, topsoil moisture, streamflow conditions and other indicators. The U.S. Drought Monitor also collects reports from residents and producers around the state feeling impacts. Blandford at the drought committee meeting gave an overview of common concerns in those reports.

Blandford: “You can see some of the higher concerns — grasshoppers, cows, cattle, livestock, reservoirs, hay, dams.”

This monitoring helps ag producers and others impacted make decisions about how to move forward and how aggressively they need to conserve resources.

Monares: What more could the state be doing?

That depends on who you talk to and whether we're talking short-term or long-term efforts.

Right now, Rispens says ag producers would like more aid. And outfitters, guides and conservation groups are asking the state to form a coldwater fisheries task force to look at river conditions.

Ethan Kunard is director of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council, which supports watershed groups and conservation districts. He says there’s not enough state support for local water conservation groups that do much of the groundwork that mitigates drought impacts.

Kunard: “You know they’re providing a benefit to public resources and I think we should then be investing public dollars into that work, and that’s not happening right now.”

Ann Schwend, a water planner for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, says the state could do more to protect natural, green infrastructure, like wetlands and floodplains that serve really important ecological functions.

However, she says that work should happen at the local level and the state should support that.

Schwend: “We do a lot of work with conservation districts and watershed groups. They’re kind of our natural resource leaders in the communities and we would love to have them really working on developing localized drought plans. But many of them don’t really have direct funding.”

Monares: Stepping back, real big picture, this year Montana State University, Institute on Ecosystems, and Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity published a report on how climate change is impacting life in Montana. One of its key messages is that there will be increased summer temperatures and unexpected climate-related weather events, including severe summer drought.

How is the state planning for these long term, future impacts, like continued droughts?

Ragar: That remains to be seen. Montana’s drought management plan was drafted in 1995 and hasn’t been updated since. The state will begin updating that plan this fall and that could lead to policy change. That update will be led by the DNRC.

Monares: Not since 1995, wow. What more does the state need in terms of money, resources or policy to accomplish its plans for the future?

Ragar: I asked Gianforte that and he said:

Gianforte: “Well, what we need is more rain, and we don’t have a whole lot of control over that.”

He says if the state finds it needs more resources, he’ll go to the state Legislature with a request. He also said more forest management can help mitigate the risk for wildfires, which are fueled in part by dry conditions.

Monares: Gianforte recently withdrew Montana from the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of states dedicated to climate action. As climate change fuels hotter and drier conditions, what does the governor have to say about how the state should address it? 

Ragar: Gov. Gianforte says diversifying energy sources is a good idea, meaning green energy should be used with carbon-based fuels that emit greenhouse gases. Gianforte says the state, though, has no role to play in encouraging or regulating that process.

Gianforte: “Some have said we oughta regulate a cleaner environment, I think that will stifle innovation.”

The Biden administration is taking the opposite approach by using government powers to spend federal funds on clean energy. The administration is also considering requiring utilities to source clean energy and using executive powers to conserve more land that absorbs carbon.

The United Nations recently released a report that concludes the only way to slow climate change and avoid its deadliest impacts is for humans to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. That report said human-caused climate change is accelerating.

Monares: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Shaylee.

Ragar: No problem, Freddy.

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