Senator Connell and Legislative Water Panel Probe the Future

Montana’s disastrous flash drought of 2017 and the million-acre fire season have left many asking: What will the new year bring? And what about all this snow?

Weather may be getting harder to predict, not easier. Last year, Montana’s weather proved that a big spring snowpack does not mean moisture down the road.

“By May 1 we thought that things were in really good shape,” Michael Downey, water planner with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told lawmakers Jan. 8. “Last winter was a really good winter.”

Northeast Montana’s moisture looked so good planners were worried about flooding as winter ended. But in summertime some sites in Northeast Montana were the driest they’d been since record-keeping began more than a century ago — drier than even the 1930s, Downey told the Water Policy Interim Committee.

Downey said there’s a been a lack of good data from northeastern Montana, but the department is now getting more information directly from the online Montana Drought Impact Reporter.

“Producers on the ground have a way to give us new data in terms of what’s actually happening to them on the ground,” Downey said. “Back in March, they knew how dry it was, even if we were missing some of the signs.”

And this past summer won’t be the only curveball thrown at Montana. Downey went on.

Precipitation could drop 30 percent, he said, citing the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment.  

Released in September, the Montana Climate Assessment put our own people on the ground and made predictions for our state. It anticipates rising temperatures and more extreme weather, including fire and droughts.

Sen. Pat Connell (R-Hamilton), chairman of the Water Policy Interim Committee, cited the assessment’s prediction of “some really scary changes over the next 50 years” for precipitation in Montana.  

“That’s barely a rotation time for lodgepoles,” he said.

“We’ve listened over the last several months, at least in my neck of Montana, about the recognition of climate change on affecting fire behavior … discussing whether it’s drought from climate change, whether it’s an annual or persistent situation,” Connell said.

He asked Dave Schmid, deputy forester of the Northern Region of the U.S Forest Service, if his agency was re-evaluating its vegetation management plans for all of the forests “in light of this perceived climate change?”

Schmid said the science is reflected in the planning processes now underway at forests including the Helena-Lewis and Clark, Custer-Gallatin and Flathead.

The Forest Service meanwhile is spending about $3.5 million in Montana on post-fire rehabilitation, including road and trail stabilization and weed control. It’s also conducting salvage logging sales on 13 burned sites.

-Sanjay Talwani and Andie Creel

Got something to say to Prairie Populist? Send news tips, story ideas and comments to [email protected]. If you have something to submit, or an idea for a story you’d like to write for us, check out our Submission Guidelines here.