Precip numbers just aren’t adding up
By Hookemharry

Posted: February 27, 2003

You’ve heard one of Montana’s famous brokerage houses use the marketing pitch, “Where Wall Street Meets the Rockies.” Well D.A. Davidson isn’t far off.

Wall Street has been in something of a financial drought since March, 2000. And In terms of water, Montana and the rest of the Rockies have been struggling in a severe multi-year drought, too. If only times were better.

Just like watching the stock market, we peek into our backyard rain gauges and hope for more precipitation. Sure, both have their moments where they look as if they will bust out and climb back up where they should normally be. But the numbers just don’t add up.

For example, according the Missoulian weather page, the year-to-date precipitation we have received so far this year is running about an inch better than average. That is the good news. The bad news is the year is only two months old. Worse news is we were off about 3 inches from average for all of 2002 — about 24 of the normal was gone.

But just like a short run upward on the stock market, it does give us hope.

Last weekend, I was in Bozeman for the Montana Hunting and Fishing Show and talked to exhibitors who make their living off taking people on the water. They were optimistic for enough water to fish Montanas rivers and streams.

Also, most of the exhibitors didn’t mind that a snow storm blew in over the weekend and dumped enough snow to close I-90 for a while on Saturday, east of town. Nobody complained either that the show stated off slowly for the first three hours on Saturday morning as show attendees were shoveling sidewalks and driveways.

After all, with snow you have moisture and water-based recreation is thankful for all it can get right now.

Marvin and Connie Loomis, who guide on Fort Peck Reservoir, said their Trophy Fishing business is looking as good for 2003 as any year but people attending the show kept asking them if Fort Peck would have enough water to enable them to fish.

Most of those concerns about low water came out the meeting that Montana Rep. Dennis Rehberg and Sen. Max Baucus held with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Brigadier Gen. David A. Fastabend in Billings last week.

Fastabend is the US Army Corps of Engineers’ chief engineer and commander of its Northwestern Division. The meeting was attended by quite a few concerned counties, businesses and sportsman from eastern Montana.

In a nutshell, according to a story generated from that meeting by Billings Gazette outdoor editor Mark Henckel, the general said the water level is only going to go down. In fact it will certainly hit record lows for the 134 mile reservoir and could go beyond that toward levels never seen before.

The only thing Gen. Fastabend could offer as a glimmer of hope was that most of the boat ramps would remain usable on the lake. Extending the existing ramps long enough or relocating some to new locations will cost upwards of $350,000 on Fort Peck.

According to the story, Fastabend expects to promise $500,000 for the ramps on Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota and $800,000 on Lake Oahe in South Dakota, both on the Missouri River system like Fort Peck Reservoir.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist says that the dropping lake levels will hurt the fish in the lake, but that the damage may not be apparent to fishermen heading to the lake this summer. In fact, Ruggles is predicting a good summer of fishing ahead.

He said there are a lot of walleyes in the 13-to-18-inch size and that with the declining water levels and its effect on bait fish, there won’t be much for them to eat. There are few shiners, perch or young-of-the-year cisco. That should help the fishermen.

Henckel quoted Ruggles as saying, “They’re going to come up looking for something to eat and not going to find much. So what are they going to eat? Fisherman’s bait.”

For drought-parched Montana, you might call the situation on Fort Peck a silver lining to a black cloud. But the thing we all hope for which would be better in the long run, is if that black cloud brought lots of moisture with it, too.