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Snowpack percentages drop in most Montana river basins

After a damp December in the Treasure State, officials with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) said January was mostly deficient in precipitation.

According to Montana’s monthly NRCS SNOTEL site totals, January precipitation was below to around average.

“The first week of the month seemed to be promising. “The mountains got one to two feet of snow, but westerly flow produced high pressure over the latter three weeks of January,” NRCS Hydrologist Eric Larson said. This resulted in a bright sky, warmer-than-normal temperatures, and below-normal precipitation in most river basins. The northern Whitefish Range and Little Belt Mountains were exceptions, receiving snow at the end of January.

“The good news is that the snow we got during the first week of January greatly buffered the snowpack for the rest of the month,” Larson said. Overall, the present snowpack as a percentage of normal is somewhat lower than on January 1 but much higher than it was on December 1.

Several river basins had small percentage increases; however, this was primarily due to the snow early in the month. Snowpack west of the continental divide is often better than snowpack east of the split. Except for the Lower Clark Fork, Kootenai, and St. Mary’s River basins, all major basins have below-normal snowpack as of February 1.

Even if the La Nia weather pattern cycle is expected to persist for a few more months, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center’s forecasts for Montana are not incredibly hopeful.

The one-month forecast indicates an increased possibility of above-normal precipitation throughout the majority of the state, but as we saw in January, this is not a certainty. With two to three months left in the regular snow accumulation season, there is still time to make up for lost ground.

“Most sites are still just one significant storm away from a typical snowpack,” Larson added. Normal to above-normal snowfall will be required to attain average snowpack peak levels in April and May in the following few months.

The monthly Water Supply Outlook Summary, accessible on the Montana Snow Survey website, has a detailed report on circumstances on February 1.