Despite low levels, water hopes are high 

Low snowpack

“Below normal” and “cautious optimism” are the two catch phrases for this dry year, which by April had seen all 56 Montana counties placed on drought alert.

Western Montana’s snowpack was less than 70 percent of average last month, with many river basins registering a dismal 50 to 65 percent of average.

But in the Bitterroot Valley, where a water-sharing agreement was hammered out between irrigators and anglers during a drought cycle in the late 1980s, water flows are a bit better.

Painted Rocks Reservoir, about 25 miles up the West Fork Road southwest of Darby, was “dang near full” last Monday, according to Larry Schock, civil engineer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Painted Rocks is fed by five mountain creeks, which in turn empty into the West Fork of the Bitterroot River.

That the reservoir is full is hopeful news for the downstream irrigators who rely on a full reservoir for watering their fields and crops, and for the commercial fly-fishing guides who need adequate in-stream flows for their livelihoods.

Schock says that the water allocation system—roughly two-thirds of the reservoir’s water for fish and one third for irrigators—which was worked out more than a decade ago will take place as usual this year.

“We’re actually expecting it to fill and begin spilling over,” Schock says.

The five creeks that spill into the reservoir will deliver 900 cubic feet per second (cfs), which is about the same as last year. However, the average water delivery into the reservoir is about 1,300 cfs. And in 1999, a good year for water, the creeks spilled 1,700 cfs into the reservoir. But with a dry season ahead, 900 cfs qualifies as good news.

Other drainages in the state aren’t in such good shape. The U.S. Geological Survey lists seven of its eight long-term river flow gauges as below normal, including the Blackfoot River near Bonner, the Clark Fork at St. Regis, the Middle Fork near West Glacier, the Marias near Shelby, Rock Creek below Horse Creek and near the international boundary and the Yellowstone near Billings. Only the Yellowstone near Corwin Springs is flowing at normal levels.

Reservoir storage at Montana’s hydroelectric dams—Canyon Ferry, Fort Peck, Bighorn, Hungry Horse and Flathead Lake—was also normal for April. Water storage at Lake Kookanusa was above normal.

But the good news isn’t good enough. Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs has asked all 56 county commissions to assign local drought advisory committees to come up with strategies to mitigate drought in their communities.

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