2023 Outlook: Montana’s Water Supply
Could 2023 be the end of drought conditions in Montana? March 20th marked the official start of spring and long range weather forecasts from the National Weather Service are predicting cooler than average temperatures with favorable conditions for above-average precipitation in March, April and May.
Despite a drier than normal January, February brought much needed precipitation to Montana and helped boost snowpack levels in most of the major river basins. Current Snow Water Equivalent (SWE) levels as of March 20, 2023 are close to normal for this time of year for the majority of Western Montana, with slightly below average snowpack in the St. Mary and Milk, Kootenai, and Bitterroot basins. The Madison, Gallatin, Helena and Smith-Judith-Musselshell basins are currently reporting SWEs exceeding 100%.
There are still several months left for areas with lower than average snowpack levels to recover, but a significant amount of precipitation would be needed. La Niña conditions are predicted to remain in the Rocky Mountain region throughout the end of this month, making this the third year in a row of La Niña conditions, a weather pattern that sends cold air into Canada and then the Northern United States, a result of the cooler surface temperatures of the water near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, as explained by National Geographic. If forecasters are correct, the cooler temperatures and above average precipitation will help to at least maintain the current snowpack levels and suggest favorable water supply levels this summer—as long as temperatures don’t warm up too soon.
While still too early to accurately predict Montana’s summer water supply, forecasters suggest that if cool, wet conditions continue as indicated for spring, there may be some relief from drought conditions this summer. However, moisture levels in the soil may need more recovery time after several years of extreme dry conditions. Water supply levels and their usability are highly dependent on when, and how fast the snow melts—the temperatures and precipitation over the next few months will greatly impact water availability for this Summer. Read the Water Supply Outlook Report from the United States Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) for detailed information on snowpack levels in each basin and early streamflow forecasts.
Currently, most of Montana is still considered to be under drought conditions, but the weather over the next few months could help the state see major improvements compared to the last several years. The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook Report, issued February 28th, 2023 by the National Weather Service, forecasts that the period from March to May shows the majority of Montana categorized as “drought removal likely” with some areas of “drought remains but improves” in the far Southwest and North Central areas.
Long range forecasts should always be taken with a grain of salt, but Western Ranch Brokers remains optimistic for favorable weather supporting normal snowpack levels and better than usual water supply levels this summer. We expect good news for producers and fly fishermen in the next few months, but will continue to monitor water supply conditions as the season progresses.
Contact us to learn more about the water supply outlook for the year ahead and how it might impact your sale or purchase of a Montana ranch.