Spite leads to international water agreement

Southern Alberta canal was accused at the time of ‘lacking in friendlyness,’ but a friendlier mood eventually prevailed

MILK RIVER, Alta. — The southern Alberta prairie is gradually reclaiming a humble-looking trench built more than 100 years ago to ensure farmers in the Milk River region were able to draw water and irrigate their land.

At the time, its construction created an international incident but it ultimately led to a long-standing historical agreement between Canada and the United States that is still in force today.

Most historical records use the colloquial name: the Spite Ditch.

But history is silent on whether that moniker suited the mood at the time. Perhaps it did and thus the name was coined. However, its official name is the Canadian Milk River Canal, according to data compiled by the late Johan Dormaar, a renowned soil scientist and historian.

Milk River resident Ed Sloboda showed a tour group the start of the Spite Ditch during an April 26 tour of the Milk River watershed. Parts of it remain clearly visible today despite it never having been used for its original purpose.

To understand the reason for the Spite Ditch, it’s necessary to understand the area’s river system.

The Milk River basin is partly in northern Montana and partly in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the river itself starts in Montana, flows into Alberta and then back to Montana, eventually entering the Missouri River. The St. Mary River also starts in Montana and also flows into Canada, eventually ending up in Hudson’s Bay. The two rivers are near to each other at certain points, but separated by a ridge.

Kandra Forbes, education outreach co-ordinator with the Milk River Watershed Council, holds a photo showing how water flowed into the Spite Ditch in 2017. | Barb Glen photo

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) came to the Milk River region in 1887 to settle and farm, attracted by the promise of irrigation. They established systems to draw from the St. Mary River and divert it into the Milk, and they built infrastructure extending northward to Lethbridge.

As more settlers arrived on both sides of the international border, they put pressure on water allocations. The two countries established the Boundary Waters Treaty in 1909 but it didn’t completely address all the issues.

“In the meantime, the settlers in the lower Milk River in Montana desired to expand their irrigation works,” Dormaar wrote in an account published in 2005 by the Alberta Wilderness Association.

“In spite of prior claims, no measure could prevent Montana from using waters in their territory as it pleased.”

The state made a plan to divert water from the St. Mary River via a canal into the north fork of the Milk River, a ruse that would drastically reduce the amount of water available to farmers in Canada.

The Alberta settlers couldn’t let that happen. They began — and completed — work on a canal that would divert water from the St. Mary and the Milk into their local irrigation system, effectively calling Montana’s bluff.

Milk River resident Bill King, also a history buff, said the local museum has photos of a large steam engine used to build the Spite Ditch. Horses and slips were also key to the work, according to Sloboda.

Completion of the ditch prompted then-U.S. Secretary of State John Hay to complain to the British ambassador, saying the 26-kilometre structure was “lacking in friendlyness.”

“It was never really used,” said King.

“They had kind of a test run and they had water in it, but it was never really used for what they intended it to do.”

Dormaar recounted that the ditch had “major seepage problems,” but it did stand ready for use.

As recently as 2017, the Spite Ditch partially proved it was up to its original task. In that year, an ice jam on the Milk River forced water into the ditch’s upper portion, and Sloboda has photos that show it.

Ultimately the two countries arrived at a peaceful solution to the dispute. The 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty later spawned the International Joint Commission, the water agreement still in use.

The IJC’s mission is to prevent and resolve “disputes between the United States of America and Canada under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty and pursue(s) the common good of both countries as an independent and objective adviser to the two governments.”

That’s a pretty good outcome for a humble prairie ditch.

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