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Where’s the Water? (Review of Water Year 2022)

You might hear the term ‘Water Year’ thrown around when people discuss drought. Simply put, a water year is used to describe 12 months where precipitation totals have been measured. Like most northern states, where precipitation falling later in the calendar year may not drain out of a watershed until spring, we measure water years in Montana beginning on October 1st and ending on September 30th of every year.

Review of Water Year 2022

Fall 2021 – Winter 2022: Last fall was exceptionally dry. Then during the winter, snowpack telemetry (SNOTEL) sites recorded low levels of snowpack collected at higher elevations due to above-average temperatures. In April, the weather shifted toward relief. 

Spring 2022: Spring brought cooler temperatures and above-average precipitation. Snow accumulation totals in southwest Montana throughout April and May were higher than what was received during the first three months of 2022. Some SNOTEL sites recorded receiving over 10 inches in April and May.

Spring snowstorms improved snowpack conditions in the mountains but there was a significant deficit to make up for due to the lack of snow at higher elevations over the winter. Low snowpack and cooler spring temperatures delayed spring melt and runoff. For many Montana rivers, spring streamflow fell below normal. Another reason for Spring 2022’s low flows is due to depleted groundwater caused by extreme drought in the prior two years. A season of average to above average precipitation contributing to shallow aquifers will be needed to recover the groundwater that contributes directly to stream baseflows.

Summer 2022: The higher than normal temperatures and dry conditions in August and September diminished reservoirs and streamflow quickly, leading to challenges for our agricultural producers. Inadequate stock water, in addition to the poor range and pasture regrowth, caused producers to move cattle early, supplement with hay, or sell early. For irrigators, most systems were not designed to keep up with the water requirements of crops without summer rainfall, during drought conditions. When water is restricted, the yield and quality of crops are reduced.  

Montana’s drought conditions have improved slightly, but the drought is not over. “While we did see an improvement in drought conditions when compared to the same time last year, the state remains in a long-term pattern of severe drought that will require significant moisture to break the drought cycle,” said Michael Downey, Drought Program Coordinator with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

At the end of September 2021, Gallatin received a total of 33.1 inches of precipitation. For Water Year 2022, Gallatin ended on September 30th with 39.2 inches, 97% of average precipitation compared to the last 20 years. Those additional inches may be the difference in what we consider a good vs a bad year. The Montana drought monitor on September 27th reported Gallatin County as being in moderate and severe drought categories. A “big” improvement from September 28th, 2021 when Gallatin was suffering from severe, extreme, and exceptional drought throughout the county.  

Looking forward to Water Year 2023

As streams trend back to winter baseflows, a more consistent low flow maintained by groundwater, we can start looking forward to Water Year 2023. So far, October has been warmer than average, but meteorologists are predicting a La Niña year. During a La Niña event, the Western U.S. is forecasted to get above-average snowfall. This prediction has some experts at the National Weather Service “cautiously optimistic” for above-average precipitation that could alleviate drought in some parts of Montana.

Stay up-to-date on the water in the Gallatin Watershed by signing up for email updates or viewing reports as they are released at

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