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Montana’s statewide drought management plan being updated

HELENA – Leaders with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) say the metrics they use to measure drought have changed — and their statewide plan for responding to drought needs to change as well.

“It was just time,” said Michael Downey, DNRC’s water planning section supervisor.

The current plan, which dates back to 1995, lays out how the state monitors and identifies drought — including triggers for officially classifying different levels of drought and eventually declaring a drought emergency.

Downey says it’s been key for keeping the public informed on what the situation really is, and for justifying requests for federal drought assistance.

Downey said the actual determination of what counts as a drought won’t change significantly, but the new plan will replace several outdated drought indicators.

He said some of the biggest changes will be in how leaders communicate drought information.

“How we interact with people and agencies and with the public, and how we do outreach to the public, has completely changed,” he said.

DNRC has been hearing a lot of concerns about drought this year from the water users they work with.

Laura Nowlin, coordinator for the Musselshell Watershed Coalition, said many agricultural users in the Musselshell basin have been planning for low water levels since last fall.

Farver Farms in Scobey has suffered the consequences of drought and floods in recent years. (Farver Farms Facebook page)

She said the conditions are similar to last year — another unusually dry year — but the reservoirs that hold stored water have been drawn down.

Nowlin says much of the work her organization does has been to plan for flooding — which has a much more immediate effect.

“Drought, the impacts are just harder to see, and I would say probably longer-lasting,” she said. “The recovery period – it depends on how long the drought lasts.”

As leaders look at potential updates to the drought management plan, they’re going to get input from seven regional stakeholder groups.

Downey says they’ll include many representatives from agriculture, but also outfitters and guides, municipal water systems and the electrical power industry.

“I think over the course of probably about the next six months is where we’re going to see our biggest progress in terms of a product that we can show,” he said.

Pedro Marques, executive director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, says his group is taking part in stakeholder meetings, and he’s planning to have a more focused interview with DNRC coming up soon.

He says one of his organization’s big priorities has been improving water storage.

For example, he says upstream water users use more irrigation water than typical, but that water absorbs into the soil and provides later moisture downstream.

He hopes the state will look at options like that during this process.

“We want the state to really look creatively at what drought management can mean,” he said.

Downey says one of their biggest goals will be to change the focus of the plan.

“Response is what happens when you’re in a drought,” he said. “We want to move that conversation from response to preparedness. There’s been a drought in Montana in 21 of the last 22 years. Drought is not something unusual; we live in the arid West, and the demands on our water supply are only going up.”

DNRC has set up an online portal where you can find out more about the drought management plan and ways you can provide input as the process continues.