The Bitterroot River drainage is deep in snow now and should be deep in water this summer, according to forecasts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"We were dismal in terms of snowpack at this time last year," said Scott Oviatt, a hydrologist for the Bozeman-based service. "The Bitterroot is now at 103 percent of average , compared to 51 percent last year. They've got about two times as much snowpack."
Streamflow predictions for April through July this year are running high as well. All four forecasting stations along the Bitterroot River were reporting at least 104 percent of average water availability, with the Conner and Darby stations at 110 percent.
And there's still time on the clock. Snowpack measurements accumulate until early or mid-April, at which point the whole winter's total is compared to a 30-year average. At this point in March, western Montana usually has 82 percent of its annual delivery.
The Upper Clark Fork where it joins the Blackfoot River reported 106 percent of annual average snowpack and 155 percent of last year's accumulation, while the whole Upper Clark Fork basin was at 111 percent and 172 percent, respectively.
"The closest year I can compare this year to is 1997, when we were under another La Nina pattern," said Steve Karkanen of the West Central Montana Avalanche Center. La Nina years are the wetter, cooler side of a cycle called the El Nino Southern Oscillation, which switches back and forth every two or three years.
While this winter hasn't delivered the freakish snow load that 1996-97 did, Karkanen said it has produced one of the most consistent deliveries. It's also brought an unusually high number of arctic cold fronts, which have affected wind patterns across western Montana.
"We usually have predominant southwest winds," Karkanen said. "But this winter, we had a lot of northeast and east winds. So when we had fresh snow, it blew it onto usually wind-blasted aspects. It's unusual to have an even snowpack on all aspects, because it's getting blown around so much."
At Lookout Pass Ski area, the snow gauges have registered 410 inches for the season so far. Marketing director Bill Dire said while that's comfortably above average, last year the resort on the Montana-Idaho border only got 280 inches for the whole year.
"And we haven't got a lot of rainfall, so the snow overall has been pretty dry for the most part," Dire said. "The skiing has just been fantastic."
And there's some spunk left in the system. Discovery Ski Area manager Peter Pitcher said what's been a good year could get better.
"We usually get these huge storms in April and May," Pitcher said. "That's where we get most of the water here. A couple years ago, we had worst snow year we ever had, and then by middle of June we were above average because of the spring rains."
Streamflow in the Upper Clark Fork basin forecasts in April to July were running 103 percent of average at Garrison and growing progressively higher as the river flowed west. By Bonner, the prediction was for 122 percent of average, while Missoula's station forecast 114 percent.
The lower Flathead was even better, with spring streamflow forecasts ranging between 113 percent at West Glacier to 156 percent at Niarada and 150 percent at the Jocko River near Arlee.
"We often get more snow in March than we do in other months," Karkanen said. "That bodes well for recreation."