It took a while for winter to get going here in Southwest Montana, but thanks to February’s storms our snowpack levels have improved to near normal, according to National Resource Conservation Service’s SNOTEL data.
Montanans pay extra close attention to our snowpack for a variety of reasons beyond our love for powder days. Snowmelt from our high mountain peaks feed our streams and rivers throughout the summer and early fall, supporting our cold water, blue-ribbon fisheries, providing drinking water to our communities (80% of Bozeman’s water supply comes from snowmelt in the Gallatin Range!), supplying farmers and ranchers with irrigation for crops, and helping protect our forests against the growing threat of wildfires. And don’t forget – water in the Upper Missouri River Basin travels across 10 states before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, so Montanans aren’t the only ones relying on a strong snowpack.
The bad news is that our evolving climate is causing snowpack to melt earlier and flow downstream at a quicker rate, leaving our waterways desperate for cool clean flows come late summer. Rivers in our basin are already stressed by seasonal low flows that cause river closures and warming water temperatures that contribute to neon-green algal blooms, all of which threaten our wild trout populations and aquatic communities. Reduced snowpack and earlier melting also exacerbates water scarcity challenges that already face the Mountain West.
To mitigate the effects of below average snowpacks on our watersheds, we must build resiliency at the community level, and in urban areas that means investing in green infrastructure, low impact development, and proper floodplain mapping. Fast-moving runoff from snowmelt not only increases our chances of flooding, but also causes a handful of environmental problems from eroding stream banks to pushing excess nutrients, sediments, pesticides, and other chemical contaminants into rivers and streams.
Upper Missouri Waterkeeper is working to improve sustainable development policies and local floodplain mapping at the local community and county level. We’re also advocating for improvements to the state-wide stormwater permit for developed areas, the MS4 General Permit, which sets our standards for new construction and post-construction runoff management. Montana has many lessons to learn from other jurisdictions on how we can incorporate cost-effective, water smart technologies and green infrastructure planning requirements that will better defend our rivers and creeks against the inevitable challenges associated with a changing climate, growing population, and sadly, fewer snow storms.