Continuing a trend of climatic unpredictability this winter, Montana’s very dry March was followed by above-average April precipitation.
There were also a few warm spells last month, but Lucas Zukiewicz with the Bozeman-based Natural Resources Conservation Service says subsequent cool temperatures preserved much of Montana’s snowpack as we head into the heart of spring.
“We got this cold snap at the end of the month which helped to shut off those mid and high elevations from melt," he says. "But as we move forward into more seasonal temperatures we’re going to see those make their big push for the year and start to see the bulk of the mountain snow water make its way into rivers.”
A wet April means the Bitterroot, Upper Clark Fork, Madison, Gallatin and Upper Yellowstone river basins will be well-stocked with above average snowpack when the majority of that melting does occur.
Not every region fared so well, however. The Kootenai and northern part of the Flathead River Basin have received below average precipitation throughout the winter. Despite that, delayed melting means levels are nearly back to normal.
Overall, Zukiewicz says predicting the weather this winter has been a fool’s errand.
There were above average temperatures at the beginning of the season, and extremely low averages in February and March. November, February and April saw a lot of moisture, which was tempered by a dry March.
“It's kind of been all over the board this winter with regards to what weather patterns have thrown at us. That stated, we ended up right where we needed to be at a lot of locations," Zukiewicz says.
Valley and most low-elevation snowpack began to melt in mid to late March, while lots of sunshine and high temperatures caused mid-elevation melting in the latter half of April.
That’s produced early, high flows for most of Montana’s streams, but the next few months still play a big role in determining the movement of water heading into summer.
“It’s really important both east and west of the divide that we have normal precipitation. Hopefully we have normal temperatures to see the slow release of mountain water,” Zukiewicz says.
By this point in a strange season, though, Zukiewicz knows better than to offer his own predictions of what may happen.