Battle Ridge Campground

The Bridger Mountains are seen from the Battle Ridge Campground site on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. 

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Southwestern Montana is drier than the rest of the state, and whether that’s going to be a big problem depends on how hot and dry July and August get.

The Montana Drought Forecast Report, released Tuesday, shows that parts of Beaverhead, Madison and Gallatin counties are seeing moderate and severe drought conditions. Much of the rest of those counties was listed as abnormally dry.

The findings follow a winter and spring that yo-yo’d between high snow totals and extended dry spells. It also comes at a point in the summer when precipitation normally falls off and daytime highs climb higher.

Whether that translates to warm rivers, less water for irrigation and smoke-filled skies depends on how the weather plays out over the coming several weeks, said Michael Downey, water planning section supervisor in the Montana Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s really a function of how dry and hot does it get,” Downey said.

Downey said the number of severely hot days will play a big role — even without much rain, the dry spots could skate by if temperatures didn’t jump too high.

A National Weather Service monthly temperature outlook puts the likelihood of above normal temperatures in southwest Montana at higher than 50% for the month of July.

The potential for significant wildfires doesn’t ramp up until August. A wildfire outlook produced by the National Interagency Fire Center puts the significant wildfire potential at normal for July for the entire state. The potential is above normal for almost all of Montana for the month of August.

The state’s drought report this week showed that southwestern Montana is the only area seeing severe drought conditions. Parts of southeastern and northeastern Montana have moderate drought conditions, and swaths of northern Montana are considered abnormally dry.

Northwestern Montana is in fine shape, according to the report. Downey said that’s a change from earlier in the year, when parts of that region was seeing moderate drought conditions.

Snowpack levels looked OK for much of the state earlier in the year, but a speedy melting season in May and June undid that for some river basins.

In the June 1 Water Supply Outlook Report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Jefferson and Madison river basins were both listed at 65% or less of their normal snowpack for that date — a sign that a lot of snow had already melted.

Recent storms helped some areas recover their losses, but not in southwestern Montana.

Areas near Three Forks, Ennis, Twin Bridges and Dillon were listed under severe drought in the report released this week. Moderate drought levels extended to other parts of the three counties. All of Park County was listed as abnormally dry.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638.

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