Mountains - snow pack

Snow coats the high peaks of the Bridger Mountains Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, near Bozeman. Snow totals in have been lower than average so far this winter.

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Montana’s September snow did not pay off as expected for the western part of the state.

Although the fall precipitation indicated a strong start for annual snow accumulation, a dry November and December put snowpack levels below average in western Montana for this time of year, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Water Supply Outlook Report for Jan. 1.

West of the Continental Divide, November precipitation levels were between only 29% and 56% of normal levels in mountain locations. Some places, like a few monitoring sites in the Jefferson River Basin in November, saw record lows in precipitation.

Precipitation totals for that month ranged from 46% to 76% of normal in basins east of the Divide.

Lucas Zukiewicz, an NRCS water supply specialist, said it’s important to keep tabs on this data, but that it’s not time to panic as May and June are most important for precipitation. The January report is just an early update.

“The bulk of the water is yet to fall from the sky,” Zukiewicz said.

Zukiewicz said that the data recorded in the Gallatin River and Madison River basins were noteworthy.

The Madison River headwaters region above Hebgen Lake saw the lowest snowpack totals, ranging from 65% to 85% of normal.

While October brought above-average precipitation for the Gallatin River Basin, a dry December gave mountain locations in the basin only 44% to 67% of normal snowfall for the month, resulting in decreased snowpack.

The deficits bear monitoring, according to the report.

Reservoirs in southwest Montana are holding more water than average.

Zukiewicz said he’s optimistic the dry spell is on its way out, and that the forecast is predicting precipitation to come.

“I think we’re starting to see a turnaround,” Zukiewicz said.

The January 2020 report is somewhat similar to the January 2019 report that also outlined below-average snowpack. It was followed by record snowfall in February.

This story has been updated to clarify the timeframe of some of the precipitation numbers.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at or at 582-2607.