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HELENA - As the state enters the fourth year of a persistent drought, prospects for relief appear slim, officials told the Montana Drought Advisory Committee on Tuesday.

Since 1998, much of the state has developed precipitation deficits of 8 to 10 inches, Montana meteorologist-in-charge Ken Mielke said. Those deficits are starting to approach what was seen over 10 years during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. When the Dust Bowl was ending, areas of the state were short by 10 to 40 inches of precipitation.

"There is some similarity," Mielke said. "We're warmer than normal, and the deficit is measuring up."

The one bright spot over the past four years was Glasgow, which received more than 11 inches more moisture than normal.

Last weekend's snowstorms helped some, but won't make much of a difference, Mielke said. Over the next week, Montanans may see another storm or two, but Mielke said not to expect much more.

"We hang our hopes on this next storm, but after that not much for a while," he said.

Although temperatures and precipitation are expected to be near normal for much of the next year, Mielke said, another El Nino is brewing over the Pacific Ocean, leading to prospects of an unusually warm and dry winter next year, especially in Eastern Montana.

This winter's snowfall is actually an improvement over last year, said Roy Kaiser, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources and Conservation Service.

Snowpack across much of the state is near normal, and where it is low, it is better than last year. But, he said, when the snow melts it won't necessarily flow into low-running streams. Because soil moisture is so low in some areas, the water may just sink into the ground.

Palmer Drought Severity Indices for Montana - describing the intensity of wet or dry periods - show a decline since February 2001 for all but the northwestern portion of the state, where conditions are now normal.

In central Montana, the drought has gone from mild to severe. In the southwest, the formerly severe drought is now extreme. And in the south-central portion of the state, the extreme drought has worsened.

State Rep. John Witt, R-Carter, told the committee he worries that not enough is being done to help people across the state with the long-term effects of continuing drought.

"This damage is going to stay with Montana for a long time," Witt said. "We need some longer term planning.

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