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Bitterroot snowpack faring well
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Bitterroot snowpack faring well

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Elk in the Bitterroot

These elk seen along the Eastside Highway south of Stevensville Tuesday morning are enjoying a nice open winter on the floor of the Bitterroot Valley this year. Up higher, the snowpack is about average for this time of year.

A little over a month ago, John Crowley would feel a sense of dread when he looked toward the Bitterroot Mountains.

Before the first of the year, it felt like Mother Nature had turned off the spigot and walked away.

“It was feeling a little bit nervous,” said the manager of the Bitter Root Irrigation District. “I’m feeling a lot better now.”

The snowfall in January in the mountains that feed the Bitterroot River was nearly record-breaking. In most cases, the snowpack doubled or even tripled during the month.

The Twin Lakes SNOTEL site gained 16 inches of snow water equivalent following a series of heavy snowstorms that pounded the high mountain site. During January, the snow water equivalent jumped from a below-normal 10.2 inches on Dec. 30 to slightly more than 26.1 inches by the end of the month.

Even the lower snow measuring sites made huge gains.

The Twelvemile Creek SNOTEL site in the Lost Horse drainage nearly tripled in January from 4.6 inches of moisture to 12.9 inches.

While the snow hasn’t piled on the valley bottom like last winter, the Forest Service’s regional hydrologist, Andy Efta, said the mountain snowpack is ahead of where it was the same time last year.

“It seems like it’s kind of been a wild and bizarre January,” Efta said. “We went into it looking bad and came out the other side with a good amount of snow in the mountains.”

Last year on Feb. 11, the snow water equivalent in the Bitterroot drainage was 87% of normal. This year, Efta said the overall snowpack is at 98%.

That comes despite some rather springlike days in January on the valley floor. Higher up on the mountainsides, temperatures may have pushed the edge of freezing during the day, but the nights remained cold enough to keep the water in place.

The snowpack is a little better on the west side versus the east.

Overall on the west side, Efta said the snow water equivalent at snow measuring sites is at 100% or above.

The east side is lagging just a little bit behind that at about 90% of normal.

“All things considered, the basin is in good shape right now,” he said.

Tony Neaves has seen the conditions change considerably over the winter during his trips into the backcountry to groom snowmobile and ski trails in the Skalkaho, Lost Horse and Lake Como areas.

Early in the season, Neaves said there was a really bad layer in the snow and avalanches were running right down to the ground level. Since then, Neaves said that appears to have settled out somewhat.

The snow has been a boon for cross-country skiers, snowshoers and fat-tire bike riders in the Lake Como area this winter. Full parking lots show Neaves that people are taking advantage of it.

Neaves has kept a grooming journal for the past decade. It reminds him that a warm snap often comes at the end of January with winter returning about the first week of February.

Crowley knows from experience that no two winters are alike.

“We just have to take advantage of what we get,” he said.

The reservoir is already starting to slowly fill. Crowley said it’s coming up about 600 acre-feet a day.

National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Noble said the wave of storms that have been adding to the Bitterroot drainages’ snowpack is expected to continue through this weekend when another inch of moisture is expected.

A large upper-level ridge in the eastern Pacific Ocean combined with a very large trough to the west of that has created conditions for a steady stream of moisture-laden storms to continue in the Bitterroot and western Montana.

“This month it feels like it’s finally winter,” Noble said.

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The National Weather Service estimated that 4 to 5 inches total had fallen at Missoula International Airport office, and said the agency had gotten reports of more than 6 inches in central Missoula.

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