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HELENA (AP) - The season's first snowpack measurements, greatly aided by heavy snow in many places over the holidays, show a big improvement over last year and a slight improvement over normal, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service said Wednesday.

Overall, statewide snowpack contains 63 percent more moisture than at this time a year ago.

However, news of the good start comes with a note of caution that's become routine over several years of drought.

While the moisture content is up over 2003 levels, it's barely above average for this time of year, and the state will still need a lot more snow to maintain average levels through April, the typical end to Montana's snow season, officials said.

"We're running at a good pace for this time of the year, but the main thing is we still have more than half of the way to go," said Roy Kaiser, a water supply specialist for the conservation service.

The agency found snowpack about average on both sides of the Continental Divide, with most river basins slightly above average. Almost all showed at least half-again the moisture they held at this time in 2003.

The Little Bitterroot-Ashley Basin in northwest Montana reported the most improvement, up almost 2 1/2 times over last year.

So far, Montana streamflows from April through July are forecast to average from 79 percent to 110 percent of normal, the agency said. Surface water is expected to be below average to near average, but only if average precipitation continues.

"We need to remember that the cumulative moisture deficit over the past several years of drought could lead to late season water shortages," Kaiser said.

The federal Drought Monitor shows extreme drought or drier conditions over much of southwestern and central Montana. The highest drought rating, exceptional, covers an area from Cascade County south through Beaverhead and Madison counties.

Gina Loss, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, said long-term outlooks through most of the summer still show equal chances of above- or below-normal precipitation.

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