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HELENA — Roughly half of Montana is no longer in drought, state officials said Thursday, although 18 counties remain on a drought alert and one — Beaverhead County — is still experiencing a tenaciously severe drought.

The Montana Drought Advisory Committee concluded at its meeting the state overall is at a moderate risk of experience a drought again this year.

Those conclusions replaced a more dire drought forecast from last fall, when the committee said the entire state would be in a drought this year without generous winter snows and spring rains.

The committee meets regularly to discuss moisture and ground water in Montana and prepares an annual report describing the state's water situation. For the last three years, much of its news has been bad, as the state has experienced one of the worst droughts in the past 100 years, with some pockets enduring the worst drought in recorded history.

But in many parts of Montana, that bad news seems to be dissolving under heavy winter snowpacks and regular, soaking showers, said Jesse Aber, water resources planner with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and a member of the committee. Many parts of the state are getting above-normal rainfall this spring. That, combined with colder weather in parts of Montana which is slowing the snowpack runoff spells good news for the state.

Still, neither Aber nor anyone else on the committee seemed ready to say the drought is truly over. For one thing, Aber said, a few pockets of the state are still dry, namely Beaverhead County, although Kalispell and Billings are also lagging behind in moisture for the water year, which runs from October through September.

Plus, Aber said, the enduring dry spell so severely devastated Montana's ground water and soils that it wouldn't take much to push the state back into a drought.

In the Helena Valley, Department of Environmental Quality statistics show, about 50 wells either dried up during the drought or were extremely drawn down. A number of other wells across the state dried up over the winter.

Rivers and streams also suffered, and with them the state's fish, said Kathleen Williams, of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and a member of the committee. The Musselshell River, one of the hardest hit waterways during the drought, is now without entire age groups of brown trout, she said, adding that it's surprising any fish survived in the river at all.

Most of all, the state's farmers and ranchers suffered, Aber said. He divides the drought into three categories. First, there's rain and snow and the amount of moisture falling to the ground. In that way, the state is doing pretty good, although there are lingering dry pockets. Then, there's ground water and soil moisture. Montana isn't doing so well in this respect and Aber said it would take at least two normal years to recharge the state's aquifers. Finally, there is what Aber called "socioeconomic drought," or the social and economic effects of dryness. The socioeconomic drought isn't over, he said, adding that in agricultural counties hardest hit, all sorts of domestic and substance abuse problems have surfaced.

"If you're a dryland farmer, what are you going to do?" he said.

Despite relatively healthy moisture, Rick Bondy, division engineer of the Water Resources Division in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said he didn't think river and stream flows would return to normal for a while. For one thing, he said, aquifers dropped so low and soils were so dry that some water in rivers and streams is being sucked into the dry soil and down into the parched aquifers.

Plus, Aber said, a cool spring in parts of the state is postponing the spring runoff.

While the committee's recommendation is the state's official word on drought, it is not related to federal declarations of drought, which open the door for federal drought assistance, Aber said.

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