On the final evening of a Smith River float, instead of enjoying hors d’oeuvres or casting a line, I hunkered with my companions in the trees. It was early July 2017 and we sat in the shade, watching the sun broil the exposed earth of Lower Givens boat camp. At 5 p.m., it was still too hot to do anything but wait — fanning, reading and willing the canyon walls to grow taller and blot out the sun.
We couldn’t have known it then, but 2017 would turn out to be an “exceptional” year for much of Montana, characterized by the worst drought in a generation and the least precipitation in some areas since 1895.
On the Smith, we noticed the river, too, had been hard hit by heat. The bulk of the basin’s snowpack had melted during the second week in May. Streamflow, largely driven by snowmelt, peaked about a month earlier than usual at only 65 percent of normal. By mid-June, as air temperatures increased and rain petered out, streamflow tanked.
The week we floated, the river had felt like 150 cubic feet per second of well-used bathwater, choked with globs of algae and the occasional upended trout. And it got worse. For all of July, daytime water temperatures on the Smith would not dip below 70 degrees. More often, though, the river hovered closer to 75 degree — near deadly for trout.
The lesson here is not that summer in Montana is hot, but that it’s getting hotter.
Winters, too, are warming. As temperatures rise, snowpack declines. The amount of surface water stored in mountain snowpack — our largest and most important reservoir - has shrunk across Montana and the West by 20 percent since the ‘30s. Snow is also melting earlier, sometimes by several weeks. The result is lower streamflow during the hottest part of the summer when we need it most — a trend that’s projected to worsen.
Combine reduced snowpack, earlier snowmelt and rising temperatures with a drought year like 2017 when we received a tiny fraction of our normal spring and summer rainfall, and the stakes raise in a flash. It’s clear we have yet to understand what this means for the future of Montana’s communities, ecosystems and economies.
The Montana Climate Assessment notes that drought is a well-documented part of the state’s past and present climate. Future droughts, though, are predicted to be hotter and drier due to increasing temperature and evapotranspiration. Think of this as the atmosphere getting “thirstier.”
Climate change was once the problem of future generations. The call to action rested on images of our cherubic grandchildren choking on wildfire smoke. It turns out, we are our grandchildren.
Even though climate change is here, so is resolve to act. I see it in ways Montanans have come together across the state to reduce climate-related impacts in their communities. Parched soils? Plant cover crops. Stressed fish? Enhance streamflow through groundwater storage. Water conflict? Brew some coffee and sit down with your neighbors. It’s not always that simple, but Montanans have a history of solving problems with common sense and collective effort.
If you’re working with your neighbors to address climate-related issues, I encourage you to take another step and share that with your representatives. Ask for their support. Tell them, “Montanans are working every day to address climate change. It’s time you catch up.”
As we head into another winter and spring, it’s no longer enough to cross fingers for a good snowpack and hope for rain. Summers are longer, hotter and dryer, and even a good snowpack won’t save us — or our rivers — from July.