Montana Public Radio

Water Supply Committee Debates When To Issue State Drought Forecast

Mar 20, 2018

An advisory council to the governor is considering a change to Montana's law on predicting drought conditions, following the historic 2017 fire season that caught state officials by surprise.

This time last year, Governor Steve Bullock’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee did not expect drought to be an issue for Montana in the warmer months of 2017. The committee sent their annual report to the governor last April when streamflows were high and spring rain was falling.

But soon after that prediction was made, the state dried up, leading to a crippling drought for much of the eastern areas of Montana, and leaving ripe fuel for fire.

"As we’ve heard today, April 15 is much earlier, given the runoff and precipitation regimes that we’re looking at these days, to make that kind of a call," says Michael Downey with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Downey spoke during the drought and water supply advisory committee meeting Tuesday, in Helena. He says the committee should wait until June before it predicts what Montana’s drought outlook will be for the coming year.

Downey says the current law, which requires that prediction be made by April 15, was put in place in the early 1990s, following the severe drought of '88. But Downey says rising average temperatures in the state may require that law to change, in order to adapt to increasing demands for water during an extended, increasingly warm, growing season.

Screen grab from the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, showing temperature trends by Montana region from 1950 -2015.
Credit Montana State University and University of Montana, Montana Institute on Ecosystems.

Even if there is near record snowpack — like there is this year — Downey says that doesn't necessarily mean that moisture will stay in the ground for as long as it used to.

Megan Syner, with the National Weather Service, gave an update on the state’s weather conditions during the advisory meeting. 

"Overall, it's been a pretty cool and wet winter season," Snyer said. "Famous last words. I remember saying the exact same same thing last year."

Syner says looking ahead to July and August, there are signs that point to warmer than normal temperatures and below normal precipitation.

A bill draft to change the timing of the state’s drought forecast would  likely come from the governor’s office or an interim legislative committee ahead of the 2019 session.