Management Recommendations: Montana’s roadmap to drought resilience

During the 2021-23 update process for the Montana Drought Management Plan, hundreds of Montanans shared ideas, concerns, and solutions through public meetings, survey responses, formal interviews, and conversations. Those strategies are collected here. Together they form a menu of options for improving our ability to respond and adapt to drought.

The stakeholder-generated recommendations are organized into seven broad categories that span many aspects of water use and management, including policy, funding, programs, technical assistance, coordination, and communications. Many recommendations offer proposed changes to specific state programs and policies that would remove barriers to, or better support, local-level action. While most recommendations focus on state-level action and complement existing state plans, some propose actions at community or federal levels. 

Water Supply, Storage and Delivery

Maximize water supply, storage, and delivery by enhancing existing built storage, expanding natural storage, and assessing infrastructure 

Water storage is one of the earliest drought adaptation strategies and continues to play a critical role in meeting current and future water demands. Montana’s federally owned reservoirs were constructed between 1900 and 1950, and state-owned water projects were mostly built in the 1930s. Consequently, Montana’s dams and reservoirs require significant and ongoing investment (private, state, and federal) for maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation.

The Montana State Water Plan (2015) recognized that large, traditional (built) water storage projects are “expensive to plan, construct, operate, and maintain” and are further “limited by the availability of suitable locations, cost, public support, the need to mitigate environmental impacts, and the limited legal and physical availability of water.” The State Water Plan endorsed ways to maximize built storage capacity through rehabilitation and modifying reservoir operation policies, as well as integrating natural storage to benefit water supplies and ecosystems.

Maintenance of Montana’s state water projects is largely supported by the coal severance tax and the sale of hydropower from state-owned Toston Dam, which currently generates $5 to $6 million annually. The state’s agreement to sell power generated by Toston at a fixed rate expires in 2024, and future revenue streams to fill this gap are uncertain. Montana, led by DNRC, should explore potential alternative, funding sources to ensure Montana’s state water projects continue to meet the needs of the many water users across Montana who rely on them. Although much of the water stored by state-owned projects is marketed to local water users’ associations for irrigation, some projects, such as Painted Rocks, also store water to augment late-season instream flows for fisheries.

Similarly, more than 75% of Montana’s dams are owned by private or semi-public (e.g., water user associations) entities, and, although their typical purpose is to store water for irrigation or livestock, many of them provide broader public benefits, such as flood control, recreation, and late-season streamflow. The operation and maintenance costs, as well as liability, are the responsibility of the dam owner(s), and no existing federal programs fund operation and maintenance. Thus, dam owners bear the full costs of these expenses. Dam maintenance is a public safety issue, as well as a key to better management of water during drought and flood conditions. Montana should explore if adequate funding is available in existing grant and loan programs to support ongoing operation and maintenance of privately owned and semi-publicly owned dams.
Building new surface water storage projects in Montana is unlikely, but there may be opportunities to enhance and expand the storage capacity of the more than 64,000 existing projects, many of which are located in the headwaters of major river systems. Many are nearly (or already exceed) 100 years in age and would require varying levels of rehabilitation to restore or increase their historical volumes. In addition, the patchwork of dam ownership (private, local governments, state government, tribal governments, public utilities, and federal government) throughout the state adds complexity because of differing regulations and operating plans.  

A statewide feasibility and cost-benefit analysis of surface water storage projects in Montana would provide much-needed guidance as to which projects make the most sense to pursue as opportunities to increase surface water storage. This would be a significant undertaking, but such a project would not need to start from scratch. Feasibility analyses have already been conducted for most state-owned water projects. The potential gains from analyzing the remainder and aggregating the findings make it a worthy endeavor. The feasibility studies would vary depending on the project but would need to address: administration (ownership and feasibility of transferring to the state, if appropriate; options for contracting water; and evaluation of operation plan); water assessment (volume, timing, use, and availability); engineering assessment (operations and maintenance, current conditions, modifications for irrigation, options to increase storage, and hydropower options); and possible funding strategies. Montana, led by DNRC, should look to maximize the use of already-built reservoir storage across ownership categories as a tool for supplementing late-season streamflow and meeting water demand by assessing the statewide feasibility of expanding surface water storage. 
Managed aquifer recharge can build drought resilience by temporarily storing water underground. This process can offset groundwater depletions from pumping, and, for aquifers that can potentially hold more water, it can even increase the total stored volume. By building on localized aquifer recharge projects required for mitigation, Montana could consider regional aquifer recharge in the context of a state-run program, like Idaho, though this approach would likely require substantial feasibility analysis. Potential next steps to pursue include assessing examples from other states’ programs; convening a technical meeting with water managers from other states; assessing Montana’s hydrogeology/geology to identify areas where aquifer recharge projects might be successful; locating potential source waters; identifying potential policy barriers and options for modification; and combining all available information into a framework for advancing future field and modeling projects and funding opportunities. DNRC, in close collaboration with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology (MBMG) and other stakeholders, should lead an evaluation of managed aquifer recharge sites in Montana.

Cloud seeding programs for generating snowpack, increasing summer precipitation, and suppressing hail have been in practice since the late 1950s. Currently, eight western states and several Canadian provinces have active programs in place. The programs in Wyoming and Idaho are aimed toward boosting snowpack in areas where reduced winter snowfall and earlier snowmelt have diminished summer and late season streamflows, affecting agricultural production, recreation, hydropower production, and other uses. While cloud seeding is not a panacea for diminished water supplies, it may offer a tool for enhancing water supplies in some Montana watershed basins. In recognition of this potential, the 2023 Montana Legislature appropriated funding to study cloud seeding in the state. The utility, cost and benefits of cloud seeding should be evaluated through a robust science-based evaluation of Montana’s climatology, geography, and other variables affecting the feasibility of cloud seeding in Montana.
Watershed practitioners, researchers, landowners, and funders are increasingly looking to nature-based solutions to increase water capture and retention. Nature-based solutions include a wide range of practices that capitalize on natural processes to preserve or restore function of natural systems, including the storage of water in riparian areas, wetlands, and floodplains. These systems act like a sponge by temporarily holding runoff water. Eventually, water either returns to the surface water or recharges groundwater.

Preserving intact floodplains and wetlands is the most cost-effective way of enhancing natural water storage. However, where activities like development, overgrazing, and/or artificial channelization have already impaired stream function, process-based restoration methods can restore river and floodplain connectivity to improve riparian function and bolster drought (and flood) resilience. For example, some practitioners in Montana have achieved this by installing networks of deformable grade structures, or “beaver dam analogues,” to slow water and restore stream function. This integration of beaver habitat into stream restoration projects is a key goal of the Montana Beaver Action Plan (2021) because it facilitates self-sustaining natural processes that promote landscape-wide drought and wildfire resilience. Existing models can be used to identify areas of historical beaver presence and/or wetlands (e.g., Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool or floodplain storability models), which can help prioritize the implementation of natural storage projects.

Project funders could evaluate whether current grant and loan programs adequately support and facilitate nature-based solutions, especially where required cost-benefit analyses or other program requirements tend to prioritize built infrastructure (i.e., Federal Emergency Management Agency programs). Practitioners and researchers could monitor natural storage projects to better determine their efficacy at watershed and larger landscape scales.
Disturbances to riparian ecosystems, such as road building, vegetation clearing, or erosion, can cause channelization, which is a progressive deepening of the streambed such that the stream can no longer access its floodplain. In contrast, when riparian areas are left intact, floodplains can absorb high flows and provide both drought resilience and flood attenuation benefits. Floodplain management and policy are complex and require local, county, state, and federal coordination. Several states have sought to better integrate floodplain management frameworks, including policies, funding, and projects, that can meet local land-use priorities while encouraging and restoring natural river function and floodplain connectivity.

Washington’s Floodplains by Design program is a successful, public-private partnership and funding program that uses a landscape-scale, multi-partner approach to integrated floodplain management. Oregon’s multi-county Floodplains for the Future program is conservation district led and relies on integrated floodplain management to encourage thoughtful floodplain use while also limiting flood risk, restoring fish and wildlife habitat, and increasing natural water storage capacity, which attenuates flooding and drought. While neither model may be appropriate for Montana, there is already a channel migration easement program through Montana Freshwater Partners. DNRC, working with local governments and federal agencies, could explore approaches to better integrate floodplain management for drought and flood resilience through policy change, novel partnerships, and targeted financial investment.

In addition, DNRC’s Floodplain Management Program can continue and expand its public outreach and communication activities on the benefits of open space in floodplain areas, no adverse impact development practices, and sound mitigation projects (including acquisitions in high-risk flood areas), as well as provide education and training on best development practices in and around floodplains. The Floodplain Management Program can also explore the development of a targeted, strategic outreach and education program for riparian property owners that emphasizes the importance of riparian vegetation in building resilience to both droughts and floods.
Irrigation is a critical hedge against drought for many of the state’s agricultural producers, but much of Montana’s public and private irrigation infrastructure (including storage, conveyance, and on-farm systems) is aging. DNRC is increasing investments in its grant programs that support irrigation, but neither state nor federal funding programs can adequately address all outstanding infrastructure needs. DNRC should explore funding an updated statewide study of irrigation infrastructure conditions with an analysis of possible funding sources, to help prioritize future state and federal investments in irrigation in Montana.

Water Policy

Modify or create state policies to enable voluntary water-use flexibility and clarify water management roles

Changing conditions require changing responses, but Montana’s extensive statutory and regulatory water-use framework can impose barriers to quick adaptation. Fortunately, policy adjustments are available that could increase responsiveness and resilience in the face of drought while still protecting existing uses from adverse effect. The common theme of the policy recommendations is that they promote flexibility and creativity within the prior appropriation system to allow Montanans to quickly adapt when drought occurs. 

“Use it or lose it” is common shorthand for one of the cornerstones of prior appropriation doctrine: water must be put to beneficial use or the user risks forfeiting their water right. In Montana, like many other western states, this clause is known as abandonment (§ 85-2-404, MCA). Abandonment can serve as a powerful disincentive for a water user to voluntarily conserve water through curtailment of their use (e.g., by participating in a watershed drought plan). Voluntary water conservation is an important tool for building drought resilience, so Montana should explore ways to provide assurance to water users that they will not be subject to abandonment for temporarily reducing their water use during periods of drought.
The water right change process through DNRC requires public comment and objection periods, an analysis of historical diverted volume and consumptive use, and a determination of whether the change will adversely affect other water users. The change process is intentionally thorough to protect existing water users. However, some short-term drought management actions that involve temporary changes to the purpose or place of use or point of diversion may not require such intensive analysis. For example, an irrigator might temporarily switch from a low-water tributary to a mainstem source for a few weeks or might leave some water instream rather than use the entire volume for irrigation. DNRC should use its Comprehensive Water Review process to consider a shorter, simplified review process for temporary water right changes to allow for greater management flexibility during drought while still protecting other water users.
Establishing a simple, streamlined path to short-term (i.e., up to one year or as little as an irrigation season) water leasing is a key policy strategy Montana should explore to build multi-sector drought resilience. Although we often think of temporary leases as ways to boost instream flow (§ 85-2-408, MCA), they can be applied to other beneficial uses as well, such as municipal water suppliers, which often bear a disproportionate burden to provide critical services (e.g., drinking water and fire suppression) for rapidly growing and urbanized populations. Creating more flexibility in short-term leases would allow water users to be nimbler in how they respond to drought.

Instream flow is a recognized beneficial use (§ 85-2-102(5)(d), MCA), and water rights that list instream flow as a purpose are held to the same statutory criteria as other existing rights with different beneficial uses. In 2013, the Montana Legislature provided a mechanism for temporary water right leases that were not subject to the more rigorous change criteria. However, that provision expired in 2019. § 85-2-427, MCA (2013) (Terminated July 1, 2019--sec. 4, Ch. 236, L. 2013). Current law allows for short-term leases of water volumes (§ 85-2-410, MCA) for dust abatement or road construction, and this concept could be extended to instream flows during periods of drought. Oregon currently relies on short-term instream flow leases (with a <45-day review period) as the bedrock of that state’s drought response program. If Montana re-established such a program, it could provide a highly effective approach to maintaining streamflow during drought, especially when combined with dedicated funding for instream flow leasing (3.C.).

Short-term leasing programs are only as effective as they are flexible: This approach hinges on a short review period and a relatively simple administrative procedure (outside of DNRC’s well-established water right change process). Montana, led by DNRC, should consider reestablishing a short-term water leasing program as a key drought response policy tool.
Apply banks are physical (reservoirs or aquifers) or institutional (administrative/market-based) mechanisms that facilitate the exchange of water that is already accounted for by existing and new water rights through purchase or lease. Several western states, including Idaho, Washington, and Nevada, have established water supply banks in various physical and institutional forms. Water supply banks offer flexibility during drought in various ways, especially in river basins that are considered overallocated and closed to new water uses. Water supply banks may also be created through voluntary formal agreements among users that are managed and enforced by the parties involved.

Marketing for mitigation and water supply banks could simplify permit analysis and have the potential to reduce the number of permit exemptions (i.e., exempt wells) needed to accommodate new development and accomplish other new uses. DNRC should use its Comprehensive Water Review process to consider further build-out of mitigation for marketing or other forms of water banking, including improving statewide measurement to ensure a workable water accounting foundation for such solutions.

Under certain hydrogeologic conditions, surface water seeps to aquifers through unlined irrigation canals, ditches, and ponds. This seepage often benefits streams and rivers by augmenting streamflow or lowering stream temperature. The exact location and timing of such recharge depends on numerous variables, but in many places seepage from early-season irrigation practices reaches the stream in late summer when streamflow is low.

From a drought resilience perspective, aquifer recharge is an important process that already occurs and should be incentivized. Yet from a policy perspective, managed aquifer recharge (unaffiliated with a separate beneficial use) is not considered beneficial – or even legal outside of limited circumstances. The tension between physical (drought resilience) and administrative (water rights) perspectives of aquifer recharge and its benefits warrants reform.

Definition of beneficial use: Currently, aquifer recharge is not considered a beneficial use in Montana’s water right system outside of the context of offset adverse effects resulting from net depletion of surface water. Yet incidental recharge can create landscape-scale drought resilience benefits for people and ecosystems that could be amplified if accomplished in an intentional manner. For example, diverting water into canals and onto fields in the weeks preceding the start of irrigation season – when the water is not used for the beneficial use of irrigation – could have significant benefits for drought resilience by storing water in soils and aquifers that would otherwise run downstream. DNRC should use its Comprehensive Water Review process to explore broadening the definition of “aquifer recharge” (§ 85-2-102(3), MCA) to clearly authorize recharge as a standalone use, outside of mitigation or marketing for mitigation.

Incentivize voluntary retention of flood irrigation infrastructure: In addition to aquifer recharge from ditches and canals, the practice of flood irrigation itself can also recharge shallow aquifers and provide late-season return flow that can benefit downstream water users and aquatic ecosystems. However, flood irrigation is labor and time intensive, and, as a result, many irrigators are converting operations to sprinkler systems because of labor and time savings, among other benefits. The timing and volume of return flows from flood irrigation depends on site-specific conditions, but, in general, irrigators who want to remain in flood irrigation should be incentivized to retain the practice when downstream benefits are clear. Existing state grant and loan programs could help defray the costs of upgrading flood irrigation infrastructure (e.g., headgates instead of tarps) to make it easier, and program criteria could be structured to promote this type of infrastructure in locations where downstream benefits occur. DNRC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) could evaluate their irrigation funding programs to determine whether the programs adequately support voluntary retention of flood irrigation.

As Montana nears the completion of the adjudication process, it is important to clarify the transition from adjudication to the administration of final decrees because water distribution and management are important components of drought management. DNRC initiated discussions to explore the future roles of the judiciary, water commissioners, and DNRC in 2021 as part of its Comprehensive Water Review process. DNRC is revisiting the discussion with a stakeholder working group in preparation for the 2025 session. DNRC should leverage the Comprehensive Water Review process to facilitate dialogue about water right enforcement and recommending appropriate policy changes in support of sound water management and drought adaptation. 


Establish dedicated, flexible, and stable state funding for multi-sector drought preparedness and response

Montana has made significant investments in drought adaptation (preparedness) through various state agency funding programs, but short-term drought emergency funding at the state level includes DNRC’s emergency grant and loan program and Montana Coal Endowment Program (MCEP) emergency grants (for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure). The majority of drought response funding available to Montanans comes from federal sources such as USDA – Farm Service Agency (FSA) grants and loans and Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans. These federal programs are inherently reactive because funding eligibility most often is contingent on a county drought classification of severe (D2) for eight weeks or extreme (D3) for any duration.

Establishing a flexible, stable source of drought response funding is a critical investment the state can make to protect drought-impacted Montanans who either don’t qualify for, or don’t have the capacity to apply for, federal funding – or who need funding sooner than federal timelines allow (a reality in many cases). The state could modify existing grant programs to be more responsive to drought and/or create new, dedicated source(s) of flexible and responsive drought emergency funding to address needs in key sectors.

In practice, farmers and ranchers must make management decisions well before severe or extreme drought sets in – whether that’s reducing livestock herd size, planting or not planting certain crops or fields based on seasonal water supply projections, reducing stocking rates, planning for supplemental feed, and other timely decisions.

In recent years, neighboring states have set examples of different forms of flexible funding programs. Oregon’s Agricultural Disaster Relief Fund (2021) offers forgivable loans (up to $150,000 per operation) to farmers and ranchers impacted by drought. Colorado administers a flexible, streamlined Flood and Drought Response Fund that has no timelines, no application, and sparse guidelines – it starts with a simple phone call to the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Montana could establish a flexible, time-sensitive, state “bridge funding” program to address gaps in federal programs and better support agricultural producers during and after drought.
Many of Montana’s communities depend on natural resource-based tourism and recreation to sustain them. Community livelihood in these cases is closely linked to the condition and accessibility of nearby water bodies. When rivers like the Yellowstone, Madison, or Big Hole close due to drought (or flooding), local businesses are often directly and immediately impacted by customer cancellations and negative media coverage, which lead to reduced revenue, staff layoffs, and other stressors. The Montana Department of Commerce could consider establishing a business relief funding program to help stabilize businesses with grants or low-interest loans as soon as drought impacts occur.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as Trout Unlimited and the Clark Fork Coalition, and FWP often collaborate with water right holders to mitigate stream dewatering using instream flow leasing. The water right holder, usually an irrigator with a senior right, leases some or all of their right. The leased portion is left instream, and the water right holder receives a pre-negotiated compensation as stipulated in the lease agreement. Agreements are tailored to individual situations, and lessees cannot make call unless the right has been formally changed to reflect instream flow as the beneficial use. Currently, funding to support these leases comes from a variety of local, state, and/or federal sources; FWP’s instream flow program currently receives its funding from license dollars. Few of these funding sources are specifically dedicated for instream flow, and all of them are increasingly competitive to procure. However, the benefits of such funding extend to the lessor, lessee, and beyond – to fisheries and aquatic ecosystems. The state should evaluate whether current funding for FWP’s instream flow program is sufficient, and DNRC could expand an existing program or establish a new one to provide dedicated funds for instream flow leases to promote more of these opportunities.
The Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources (STAR) program is a free, voluntary, point-based framework focused on soil health and land stewardship. STAR originated as a conservation district project in Illinois but is now administered by several states, each of which has tailored the program to address local resource concerns. In Colorado, for example, STAR is the bedrock of the state’s soil health improvement program, and production systems are evaluated based on practices known to improve soil health, water quality, and water availability. The adoption of STAR or a similar program in Montana could build drought resilience in both dryland and irrigated operations by incentivizing voluntary practices that boost water infiltration and retention in soil. Montana should consider administering STAR or a comparable homegrown incentives program to promote further adoption of voluntary sustainable agricultural practices.
A large network of watershed groups, conservation districts, land trusts, and other nonprofit organizations are recognized as invaluable leaders for restoring and conserving water resources across Montana. These organizations are primarily supported through private donations and state and federal project grants. Few grant opportunities exist that support watershed capacity building (i.e., staff time unaffiliated with a specific project) and planning, and those that do are limited, competitive, and often require a disproportionate amount of time to apply for and manage, compared to the return.

Relevant state agencies (such as DNRC and DEQ), NGOs like Montana Watershed Coordination Council, and federal funders should evaluate their funding programs for how well they meet watershed capacity-building needs. Potential changes might include establishing new programs, adjusting existing programs, such as DNRC’s Watershed Management Grant, in response to stakeholder needs; and increasing funding duration, amount of funding per group, and amount of overall funding. This would provide reliable baseline support that is critical in sustaining community-level groups that work on the ground. Capacity funding would also promote better cross-watershed knowledge exchange by supporting watershed coordinators and conservation district affiliates for the time they spend engaging their communities and building trust, attending trainings, and sharing their stories at conferences and meetings – time that they are rarely compensated for under the current structure.

Drought and Water Supply Monitoring

Stabilize support for and expand existing networks; support the Montana Climate Office; assess mechanisms to expand water measurement; and invest in hydrologic modeling

Accurate drought forecasting, monitoring, and assessment rely on a sophisticated network of weather stations, stream gages, groundwater monitoring, and snowpack telemetry (SNOTEL) sites that measure streamflow, groundwater, snowpack, precipitation, temperature, soil moisture, and other essential indicators. This state and federal network is bedrock to Montana’s ability to accurately monitor, respond, and adapt to drought and flooding in a changing climate. The ongoing investment in and maintenance of this network is critical for accurate weather forecasts, flood prediction, and drought assessment in support of the state’s agriculture and tourism economies and to protect lives and property. Also, accurate monitoring helps secure millions of dollars in federal disaster relief for Montanans during severe drought years.

The data from Montana’s monitoring networks is valuable for understanding drought conditions and making assessments, but it is also essential to the development of predictive models for future droughts. Therefore, a comprehensive evaluation of the existing gaps in these networks is an essential first step in guiding future network investments and ensuring the data collected is as useful as possible over the coming years.

The ability to effectively monitor, prepare for, and respond to future drought requires a more complete picture of the overall water balance within specific geographies. In addition to advancing drought monitoring and assessment, DNRC is also exploring water-use measurement and hydrologic modeling to further understand how drought influences various water supply inputs (i.e., groundwater and precipitation) and outputs (i.e., all types of water use) across a watershed or river basin.
Between 2023 and 2028, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is funding the installation of more than 200 new weather stations (one station every 25 miles) across central and eastern Montana at a cost of more than $21 million. This network will provide important and accurate weather, soil moisture, and climate information in an area that has long been underserved. This network will greatly enhance monitoring efforts for drought and flood forecasting, prediction, and early warning. Although the initial federal appropriation includes funding for near-term operation and maintenance, an eventual shortfall between federal funding and actual costs is anticipated. One Mesonet station requires approximately $13,000 annually in operation and maintenance costs, including staff time, travel, and equipment. Montana should assess funding the eventual gap in operation and maintenance costs and participating in the long-term governance of the multi-state Mesonet network.
The USGS stream gage network in Montana currently comprises 218 real-time stream gages on Montana’s mainstem rivers and their large tributaries. The annual operation and maintenance costs are shared among USGS and a variety of federal, state, tribal, local, and private sources. A combination of increasing costs and flat federal funding over the last 10 years has resulted in USGS congressional appropriations covering only about 39% of gage network costs in Montana, meaning that a growing financial burden is being passed on to funding partners. DNRC and FWP are the primary cost-share partners for the state of Montana. In 2022, DNRC and FWP collectively provided a cost share of $598,985 to support streamflow and/or water temperature monitoring, and Montana’s contributions increased by another 15% over the following two fiscal years. The Legislature created the Stream Gage Oversight Work Group, a temporary subcommittee of the Drought Committee, to conduct a review of the USGS gage network and funding challenges. The group provided specific recommendations for federal and state investment in gage network infrastructure in its summary report to the Water Policy Interim Committee in 2022. In accordance with the report’s findings, the state should consider providing a minimum of $700,000 baseline funding, plus an annual increase for inflation, to DNRC and FWP to maintain the USGS stream gage network in Montana.

The DNRC real-time stream gage program measures flows on smaller streams and tributaries that complement the larger rivers and tributaries monitored by the USGS. Streamflow information collected by DNRC serves state-specific water administration, distribution, and management objectives and supports local water planning and management. The 2015 State Water Plan recommended that a network of 100 state-operated, permanent, year-round stream gages be installed. To date, existing resources have allowed the DNRC program to install, operate, and maintain 36 real-time gages. All streamflow information collected through the network is available to the public on DNRC’s web-based Stream and Gage Explorer (StAGE). DNRC received one-time only funding of $1.461 million from the Montana Legislature for the 2024–2025 biennium, which will fund personnel, equipment, and operations for 30 additional gages in an effort to continue expanding the network to the recommended 100 gages. The state should consider permanent funding for the ongoing operations and maintenance of the state gage network.
Drought tends to have near-immediate impacts on surface water, but its effects on groundwater can be more difficult to evaluate because responses often appear weeks or months after the events that caused them, like recharge from canal seepage or depletion from a shortfall in precipitation. However, persistent drought can reduce aquifer storage due to less recharge and more water use. Accordingly, monitoring groundwater response to drought can inform proactive water supply management. Monitoring can be used to assess the efficacy of managed aquifer recharge projects and evaluate the sustainable yield of aquifers. In addition, it can help predict groundwater discharge to spring-fed streams, as well as potential flood events, because rising water tables can signal imminent inundation above ground.

In Montana, the USGS operates a network of six real-time monitoring wells to assess the effects of climate variability on groundwater, while MBMG uses a network of about 900 wells located in principal aquifers across the state to monitor groundwater. Long-term hydrographs from these wells document groundwater responses to wet and dry periods over annual and decadal scales. Water-level data are measured about four times per year (minimum; some wells are equipped to provide continuous measurements that are downloaded later). The quarterly schedule means that data can be out of date by a few months when they are posted to MBMG’s website. This delay can be inconsequential when groundwater levels are relatively static and predictable, but for aquifers that are more dynamic, the delay precludes planning and preparing for changes in groundwater supply. However, recent advances in sensor and telemetry technologies allow real-time groundwater data acquisition, which eliminates the delay.

To assess the feasibility, benefits, and costs of real-time groundwater monitoring, DNRC is collaborating with MBMG to install real-time equipment on a subset of the well network (10 to 15 wells) over the next few years. Candidate wells are being selected based on existing knowledge of groundwater response. The highest priority wells are those that have an established long-term record (>20 years) and that exhibit sensitivity to a variety of signals (e.g., withdrawals from pumping or recharge from inputs like irrigation, precipitation, and surface water). This pilot project will inform future efforts to expand real-time groundwater monitoring across the state. It will also evaluate how stakeholders use near real-time groundwater data accessible through StAGE and the MBMG Ground Water Information Center (GWIC) database to enhance community-based watershed planning. DNRC and MBMG should use the information gained from this pilot study to guide the expansion of real-time groundwater monitoring throughout the state.
The State Climatologist position has been in place since the 1990s, and the Montana Climate Office (MCO) has been recognized by the Governor’s Office as an independent body that provides Montanans and partners nationwide with critical scientific information on climate and drought. MCO, under the leadership of the State Climatologist, delivers targeted water, weather, and climate information to Montanans for specific sectors of interest across Montana’s distinct geographical, resource, and water-use sectors. Importantly, MCO also develops new drought monitoring products and tools designed specifically to meet the monitoring challenges posed by Montana’s diverse climate and landscape.

MCO serves a critical role in providing valuable technical support and expertise to the state’s Drought Monitoring Subcommittee and Drought Committee. It developed and maintains the Upper Missouri Drought Dashboard (Drought Dashboard), which provides essential weather and drought information to resource managers, producers, and the public across a seven-state region of the Northern Great Plains, Northern Rocky Mountains, and North Cascades. It also manages the state Mesonet database, including station cellular data subscriptions and technical assistance, station data feeds to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal databases, and coordination among multi-partner station maintenance and land access. This real-time Mesonet data is an essential tool within the Drought Dashboard. The state could consider investing in the work of MCO by funding a position to maintain and further develop the Drought Dashboard – a critical resource that facilitates the state drought monitoring and assessment process, which underpins millions of dollars of federal drought relief for Montanans annually.
Water-use measurement is the foundation of enforceable water administration. A lack of consistent, accurate measurement is a current barrier to management strategies like mitigation for junior depletions and guarding against unauthorized expansion of use. Improving water measurement will unlock greater flexibility and certainty in adequately meeting current and future water demand. In 2021, DNRC identified water-use measurement as a key challenge during its Comprehensive Water Review process. Approaches such as direct incentives, cost shares, and establishing tie-ins to infrastructure funding could help encourage water-use measurement alongside strengthened regulatory and statutory requirements. The DNRC should continue to prioritize water-use measurement as an area for intensive stakeholder engagement and development of policy recommendations.
Hydrologic models are frequently used to study and quantify water supply and use but are rarely used operationally (i.e., in real time) to inform management decisions. DNRC should develop a framework to incorporate operational hydrologic models into regional and statewide water management. After this developmental phase, the state should continue to invest in this modeling framework through hiring additional technical staff and improving, maintaining, and expanding the model as a statewide resource. Significant planning, outreach, and collaboration with stakeholders and partners will also be necessary to ensure that modeling products are tailored to specific watershed needs.

Human Health

Address human health impacts from drought

The 2021 Climate Change and Human Health in Montana report, a follow-up to the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, details the myriad impacts of drought on human health. While extreme heat can directly impact human physiology, drought is associated with many other indirect health impacts, such as inhalation of wildfire smoke or dust particles, exposure to diseases transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes, and impairment of water quality from harmful algal blooms. Given its relation to physical health, community livability, and individual livelihoods, drought is a known driver of increased rates of stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other conditions. Both short- and long-term drought can have cumulative negative impacts on mental health across Montana, and especially among rural Montanans whose livelihoods depend on natural resources (e.g., agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors) and those who rely on hunting, fishing, and wild plants to meet nutritional and cultural needs.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) currently maintains a statewide network of local and tribal public health officials who monitor public health impacts, including those related to drought. In the event of widespread or newly emerging drought-related public health issues, DPHHS will enhance its surveillance of impacts and communicate the best evidence-based strategies to clinicians and communities via the existing network.
The report provides accessible recommendations for communities to address impacts from heat, poor air quality, water-related illness, food insecurity, vector-borne and zoonotic diseases, and declining mental health. For example, communities can establish cooling centers, plant shade trees to reduce urban heat, update codes to incentivize sustainable building practices, and fund air filtration systems. Communities should look to this report as a key, actionable resource for addressing community-level drought impacts, while agencies and other organizations should review and enhance their support for community actions addressing drought and human health.
While some mental health resources exist for drought-impacted communities, increasing public awareness of — and expanding funding for — new and existing mental health programs is critical to ensuring their efficacy.

Community Governance

Help communities build drought resilience

State and federal policies and rules related to water quantity, water quality, land use, and infrastructure create an overarching regulatory framework within which counties and municipalities operate. The state currently supports community-level drought resilience through existing grant programs that fund water and wastewater infrastructure and planning, for instance. But given the challenges posed by multiple levels of governance — and the fact that each community retains unique resources with which to address unique natural resource issues – it is difficult to direct state support in an overarching way.

The policy recommendations address short-term water leasing, which would enhance a municipality’s ability to provide water during drought. Stakeholders also suggested that state agencies should integrate drought resilience measures into existing programs, including those that fund water and wastewater infrastructure. And the drought and water supply monitoring recommendation supports drought monitoring networks, which community government employees rely on for water supply information and outlooks. Other measures to build drought resilience at the local level will rely on individual governments defining community priorities, generating political will, securing funding and capacity, and addressing other factors that vary widely across Montana’s diverse communities.
The state building code must balance several competing interests. It establishes reasonably uniform baseline standards that achieve a variety of goals, including modernization, energy efficiencies, and reduced building costs. (§ 50-60-201, MCA). The Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) has adopted numerous building codes, including plumbing and Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) codes – both of which have implications for local drought resilience.

Local governments, such as counties, incorporated cities, and towns, may only adopt building codes that have been adopted by DLI and may not adopt more stringent codes. (§ 50-60-301, MCA). However, local governments may adopt voluntary energy conservation standards for new construction and provide incentives to encourage voluntary energy conservation. (§ 50-60-301(2)(b), MCA). State and local governments should continue to explore opportunities to promote voluntary water efficiency standards.

The review and adoption of building codes by DLI is an ongoing process. DLI often incorporates national and international building code provisions into the state building code. DLI engages in stakeholder outreach and input when revising building codes. Local governments should actively engage in the rulemaking process to encourage adoption by DLI of building code provisions that facilitate greater water efficiency at the local level and encourage owners, design professionals, and builders to voluntarily implement greater levels of energy efficiency in building design and construction than those required by law. See, for example, ARM 24.301.161 which incorporates portions of the International Energy Conservation Code and expressly encourages voluntary incorporation of energy efficiencies in design and construction that exceed minimum requirements.

Similarly, DLI could amend Montana’s version of the International Wildland-Urban Interface code (ARM 24.301.181) to encourage voluntary implementation of greater levels of fire protection in building design and construction. A recent Headwaters Economics report notes that hundreds of thousands of Montanans currently live in areas with moderate to high wildfire risk, with more high-risk homes being added every year.

Although DLI has authority to adopt rules regulating new construction, repairs, and remodels it is the responsibility of local governments to enforce post-construction compliance for residences. Local governments also have authority to regulate in areas outside of new construction, repairs, and remodels, such as adopting ordinances governing location of plants near structures and how firewood can be stored. Local governments should ensure that they are adequately enforcing building codes after completion of residential construction projects and adopting fire-wise regulations for plantings, wood storage, and other post-construction matters over which they exercise jurisdiction.
Montana currently supports local government drought resilience efforts through broadly applicable grant and loan programs, but technical and planning assistance at the municipal level is highly specialized and is largely the purview of independent consultants and engineers, non-governmental organizations like Montana Rural Water Systems, and even – in some cases – federal entities like the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of Montana’s smaller communities lack resources and capacity to effectively monitor and assess drought, plan for growth, or implement water conservation and efficiency strategies. These under-resourced communities would benefit from increased public-sector support.

DNRC should explore ways to help local governments through better coordination of planning resources, technical assistance, and funding opportunities. For instance, planning staff could lead the coordination and submission of multi-jurisdictional grant applications to fund infrastructure upgrades or to establish local water conservation incentive programs. In addition, state agencies who retain experts in hydrology and engineering should consider offering more programmatic support – through direct staff time – to assist municipal and county governments with key components of integrated water and land-use planning. Primary planning steps include assessing current and projected water supply, characterizing and projecting water demand, addressing aging infrastructure, conducting water loss studies, examining water rate structures, developing water master plans, and planning for drought. DNRC developed an introductory guide to municipal integrated water and land-use planning that can help communities outline the planning process and get started.

Local governments can pursue many actions to build drought resilience. Examples include investing in planning, establishing or updating ordinances, developing incentive programs, enhancing community outreach, and more. Yet communities often identify a lack of guidance and model resources as an obstacle in building drought resilience. For instance: what are best practices for establishing a rebate program for water-efficient plumbing fixtures? How should a city swap out non-functional turfgrass in boulevards? What water rate structure best incentivizes water conservation? What is in a municipal drought plan?

Developing model resources for different-sized communities that address the above questions will require significant research, expertise, and capacity that exceeds state agencies’ current purview. A potential way to develop Montana-specific guidance and model resources is for the state to invest in a community water task force. The state could consider convening and supporting a community water task force consisting of local water providers, public works directors, engineers, and other experts to identify and develop model resources local communities can use to build drought resilience.

Key model resources a municipal water task force might develop include:

  • Growth policy guidance
  • Water supply
  • Homeowners’ association (HOA) covenants
  • Zoning regulations
  • Irrigation and landscaping ordinances
  • Public outreach and education
  • Building codes
  • Rebate and other incentive programs
  • Water rate structures
  • Drought and water conservation planning guidance
  • Leak repair and infrastructure upgrades
  • Stormwater capture and storage
  • Water metering
  • Wastewater management

Agency Coordination and Partnerships

Better coordinate drought management across state and federal agencies; build diverse partnerships

Drought is complex to assess, monitor, and manage and, as such, requires a multi-agency approach. Multiple state agencies currently address drought in their plans, policies, programs, communications, and stakeholder engagement efforts. But better coordination and integration of efforts would improve drought management. Montana should communicate with federal agencies about incorporating drought resilience into federal programs, and it should periodically assess whether existing federal funding and technical assistance programs adequately address diverse state needs.
In view of potential health impacts of drought, Montana’s Drought Committee should include a representative from DPHHS. This would improve interagency coordination and better integrate existing and new drought and human health programs at the state level.

DNRC should additionally explore the potential for appointing further Drought Committee members representing a wider variety of interests, including, for example, tribal nations, the MCO, and other state and federal partners.
State grant timelines, limitations, and even objectives are sometimes misaligned with related federal funding opportunities. For instance, if federal and state agency programs have disparate funding timeframes, applicants may not be able to secure adequate local match or services. Agricultural producers have noted the difficulty of trying to access federal drought relief funds when process or timeline bottlenecks arise. If a federal grant program maintains that only a federal agency can conduct planning, engineering, and design for local drought relief projects (e.g., pipeline or well installation), the project may not be completed within required time constraints due to agency staff capacity limitations. A conservation district in north-central Montana recently missed out on the FSA’s Emergency Conservation Program funding for drought relief because of a local shortage of qualified well drillers and contractors. Similarly, some federal grant programs may be so broad that they miss local nuances (e.g., eastern Montana soil that is naturally high in saline) that render the programs ineffective. These disparities can lead to frustration and missed opportunities for applicants.

The Natural Resource Grants Working Group (Working Group) convened by the Montana Watershed Coordination Council (MWCC) and made up of state, federal, NGO, and private funders, is working to provide more coordination and continuity among conservation funders in Montana. MWCC was created in 1992 by an interagency memorandum of understanding, “to create a more efficient system of cooperation and coordination among natural resource governmental agencies and organizations in Montana.” In 2013, it organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation.

The Working Group meets quarterly. Among its priorities are: 1) improving coordination among conservation funders in Montana; 2) reducing barriers to applying for and managing federal conservation funding, including match funding; and 3) providing better access to conservation grants, including updating the Montana Conservation Menu, which lists natural resource funding opportunities by category, eligibility, funder, and other criteria. State and federal funding agencies should continue to support the Working Group by participating in meetings and on subcommittees, funding the group’s priority activities, and modifying existing (or new) grant programs and offerings to be more responsive to the needs of Montanans – especially in building drought resilience.
Drought and forest health are intricately linked in Montana, with nearly one-quarter of the state covered by forested lands. Overstocked forests, characterized by a higher tree density than natural conditions can support, are particularly susceptible to drought.

The implementation of active forest management and restoration has proven effective at addressing this issue. These practices include commercial harvest, thinning, hazardous fuels reduction, prescribed fire, and controlled wildfire managed for resource benefit particularly in overstocked stands and places where conifers have encroached on historically unforested areas. These actions offer dual benefits by improving forest health and benefiting drought management efforts.

State and federal land managers should continue to collaborate with each other, as well as private landowners, to promote drought resilient forests through implementation of these and other strategies set forth in the Montana Forest Action Plan.

To better integrate drought management at the state level, agencies should examine overlap among their drought-related efforts and seek opportunities for partnership. Agencies should also incorporate new drought resilience measures, or expand existing drought resilience measures, in their programs and activities. Finally, all state agencies should strive to integrate water management and drought information into existing education and outreach programs, where applicable.

Box 4. Incorporating drought resilience into existing state programs

There are numerous ways that drought resilience measures can be incorporated into existing state programs. The following list, while not exhaustive, includes specific strategies that were identified during the planning process.

Department of Environmental Quality:

  1. Identify drought-related impacts to water quality into Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) documents.
  2. Incorporate projects and activities that build drought resilience into watershed restoration plans.
  3. Consider requiring certain regulations be adopted, or practices be implemented (e.g., drought contingency plan, water metering), to qualify for water-infrastructure grants and loans through the State Revolving Fund (SRF).
Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks:
  1. FWP stewards aquatic resources and wildlife habitat in fulfillment of its mission, so integrating drought resilience is already an implicit part of its programs and management activities. FWP should continue managing Montana’s fisheries and wildlife resources for present and future benefits, and management should incorporate drought adaptation strategies when possible. Grant programs (Future Fisheries Improvement and Wildlife Habitat Improvement) should continue to encourage projects that promote drought resilience.
  2. Public education programs should include information about drought impacts to fish and wildlife and promote best practices when fishing, hunting, and recreating during times of drought.
Department of Natural Resources and Conservation:
  1. Continue including drought mitigation (projects and planning) as a crucial state need within the Reclamation and Development Grants program.
  2. Continue emphasizing cross-boundary forest management and promoting drought resilient forests through the Montana Forest Action Plan and its associated programs.
  3. Continue using the chronically dewatered streams list in decision making and planning, including reviews of water right changes and beneficial use permit applications. Work with FWP to keep the list updated and current.
  4. Expand and support the purview of the Montana Stream Restoration Committee (a group led by DNRC and the Lewis and Clark Conservation District with various agency partners) to focus on projects that preserve and/or restore the functioning of natural ecosystems.
  5. Support the expansion of interagency, collaborative programs, such as Silver Jackets, to encourage nonstructural floodplain projects that can reduce flood risk and enhance natural water storage.
Department of Military Affairs – Disaster and Emergency Services:
  1. Encourage inclusion of projects that build drought resilience in county-level pre-disaster mitigation plans.
  2. Continue to support acquisition projects that remove pre-existing structures from areas vulnerable to flooding and create open space areas in critical floodplains, which allow additional water storge while reducing future flood risks. 
  3. Continue developing public-private partnerships to expand breadth of projects. For example, government collaboration with non-profit organizations can facilitate the implementation of larger projects than could otherwise be achieved by one entity working alone.
Department of Commerce:
  1. Condition grant criteria to favor drought resilience-building activities, such as planning or economic diversification projects, and promote drought resilience projects through community technical assistance programs.
  2. Consider requiring certain regulations be adopted, or practices be implemented (e.g., drought contingency plan, water metering), to qualify for water-infrastructure grants and loans, including the MT Coal Endowment Program (MCEP, formerly TSEP) and Community Development Block Grants.
  3. Assist Montana communities in the integration of water and land use planning by incorporating water supply and drought resilience planning into existing programs, such as the Community Technical Assistance Program.
Official drought assessment and monitoring at the state level is systematic and well-structured, but there is not an associated, systematic process for delivering this timely information to communities. Currently the Drought Committee uses public meetings during the spring and summer and occasional earned media coverage as its main avenue for information exchange. The Drought Committee should define a deliberate process for better communicating drought information with interested local communities.
Building a drought-resilient Montana requires a strong and active network of stakeholders, government agencies, tribal nations, and many other partners to ensure effective communication and collaboration. At the local level, communities can be empowered to take an active role in drought management through programs that facilitate workshops, training, and/or meetings. For example, the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, in collaboration with the Montana Climate Office and The Wilderness Society, is currently leading a pilot project, the Native Drought Resilience Project, that can provide a model for other communities to train local climate leaders and develop drought-ready communities. Similarly, the Montana State University’s Extension’s Wildfire and Drought Task Force provides a wide range of research-based educational programs and resources about drought adaptation throughout the state. Ensuring that outreach and communication efforts are both coordinated and collaborative will help empower local communities to plan and prepare for droughts.

DNRC and the Drought Committee should bolster statewide drought coordination by exploring the formation of new regional coordinating entities; compiling multi-entity drought management resources on a single web platform; and providing dedicated state support for existing statewide coordinating entities, such as the Montana Association of Conservation Districts and MWCC, that offer training, resources, support, and coordination for Montana’s watershed communities.