January Snowfall Was Too Little Too Late


BOZEMAN, Mont., Feb. 3, 2016— January brought a little bit of everything weather-wise in Montana.  Unfortunately, only a little more than a week of that was snow.

“The first two weeks of Jauary were mostly dry, leaving skiers, snowmobilers and water managers yearning for more snow,” said Lucas Zukiewicz, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  “Every river basin in the state dropped during those weeks.”

Copper Camp SNOTEL site

Copper Camp SNOTEL at the headwaters of Copper Creek outside of Linclon, MT showing the effects of the the high winds experienced during the month of January. Photo: Lucas Zukiewicz

Preliminary data from mountain SNOTEL sites indicates that every state basin, except for the Flathead River basin, dropped in percentage of normal snowpack for Feb. 1.

Eventually, high pressure gave way to more favorable storm patterns during the middle of January, dropping substantial snowfall in some Montana river basins west of the Divide and in the southern half of the state. Unfortunately, these storms were too little and too late,  for our snowpack on Feb. 1.

“East of the Divide, January is not, climatalogically, a big snow month,” Zukiewicz said. “But west of the Divide, it can be a big part of the annual snowpack.  This means we’re not really comparing apples to apples when we compare the meaning of January totals east and west of the Divide.”

Northwest basins typically receive more than 6 inches of snow water during January, while basins east of the divide receive around half of that. In the next two months, snowfall will have a big impact on what water is available this runoff season.

“Last year at this time, the snow faucet basically shut off, and we relied on the early season snowpack and spring and summer precipitation for runoff,” Zukiewicz said.  “This year, we are hoping to see something different, and we still have a few months before we will really know what to expect water-wise.” 

Currently, three river basins are below normal, in terms of snowpack for the date (Kootenai 88{f75e9bc95454961d27ea60375533d5bd3793c6b31aa68057771d9b5363a8de8e}, Flathead 89{f75e9bc95454961d27ea60375533d5bd3793c6b31aa68057771d9b5363a8de8e}, Lower Clark 81{f75e9bc95454961d27ea60375533d5bd3793c6b31aa68057771d9b5363a8de8e}). Two river basins are well below normal (Sun-Teton-Marias 66{f75e9bc95454961d27ea60375533d5bd3793c6b31aa68057771d9b5363a8de8e}, St. Mary-Milk 78{f75e9bc95454961d27ea60375533d5bd3793c6b31aa68057771d9b5363a8de8e}, Lower Yellowstone 71{f75e9bc95454961d27ea60375533d5bd3793c6b31aa68057771d9b5363a8de8e}). Basins in the southern portion of the state have fared better from the dominant storm pattern this winter, leaving most southern basins near or above normal for Feb. 1.

Overall, in almost all basins, precipitation at SNOTEL sites across the state was below average for January—due to the dry two weeks at the beginning of the month. Water year-to-date precipitation (starting Oct. 1, 2015) paints a better picture this year, due to more precipitation during November and December in most basins. All basins, except the Lower Yellowstone and Sun-Teton-Marias, are near to above average at this time. As of Feb. 1, nine of the SNOTEL sites in the Powder and Tongue River basins are experiencing their lowest water year precipitation in 38 years of record, and six of these sites are showing the lowest snow water equivalent on record. Fortunately, the Sun-Teton-Marias, Lower Yellowstone River and the other river basins east of the Divide are favored for spring precipitation events. Given current conditions in a few regions, it will definitely be needed to receive normal water yield in the rivers this year.

At this time, 50 to 65 percent of our mountain snowpack has accumulated—leaving some room for improvement before runoff begins this spring.  However, basins with below normal snowpack need to see a substantial change in weather patterns for this to occur.  “They would need to receive 125 to 150 percent of normal between now and the peak snowpack in April,” Zukiewicz said.  “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

The above information preliminary data from SNOTEL sites only. For final monthly information (snowpack totals, mountain and valley precipitation, reservoir storage and forecasts) and more detailed basin information, water users should view the Feb. 1, Water Supply Outlook Report.





Source:  USDA NRCS Montana


Photo courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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