A summary of previous studies compares merits of various storage options for the province’s Milk River
Southern Alberta’s Milk River meanders across the Canada-United States border, carrying life-giving water and future uncertainty.
Fed almost entirely by runoff from annual mountain snow pack, its flow is regulated in part by partial diversion of the St. Mary’s River via infrastructure in Montana. In dry years, most recently in 2017, water flow is so low that irrigators are banned from drawing supply, and water quality declines for all users.
That ban, and another one threatened in 2018, prompted interest in a project to summarize past studies on Milk River water storage.
Many hope the results of that now-completed summary will eventually lead to increased water security, most likely involving a dam.
“We’ve kind of summarized what has been done in the past — put it all in a nice neat little report,” said John Ross, chair of the Milk River Watershed Council. “We’ve put that out there and now it’s going to be probably up to the government to kind of move ahead and try to do something with it.”
The summary project has information on the merits of off-stream storage, pipelines from nearby reservoirs and on-stream storage created by a dam. The latter option appears superior to others in terms of storage amount, economics and the potential to produce hydro-electricity, said Ross.
“We would catch that early water. We’re losing usually in the neighborhood of 20,000 acre feet of water in the spring because we have no way to catch it, and that is absolutely invaluable in dry years.”
The Milk River supplies water to the town of Milk River, village of Coutts and hamlet of Sweetgrass, Montana, and also allows the irrigation of about 8,000 acres on the Canadian side and many more on the Montana side plus downstream use by the city of Havre, Mont.
As a river with dual citizenship, so to speak, anything affecting flow on the Milk has international ramifications. Discussions about a dam in the past were met with animosity from Americans.
“They’re a little bit paranoid sometimes, but I think that the people on the ground (in Montana), I would say they’d be on the supportive side … the ones that know the condition of the diversion works,” said County of Warner Reeve Ross Ford, who was involved in the summary report and is on the watershed council.
Ross shared Ford’s assessment of improved international relationships involving the river.
“We’ve had some talks with some people across the line already and they seem quite positive on some of the benefits that might come out of this dam being built. It would help them in some ways too,” said Ross.
He thinks many U.S. users of the Milk River aren’t aware of just how beneficial it could be. The infrastructure in Montana that diverts water from the St. Mary’s River, maintaining Milk River flow, is in dire need of repair.
A dam on the Milk could keep water flowing in summer while allowing repairs to be made to diversion structures.
The state of the diversion infrastructure has long been a concern, at least for Canadians relying on the continual river flow it provides. Ross and others have toured the Montana system.
“There’s places where some of the drop structures … the concrete side is broken in one spot and there’s plywood and what looks like a bunch of two-by-eights or whatever, wedged against it, holding the sides of the drop structure up. It needs millions and millions of dollars to fix it up.”
However, as it stands, Montana irrigators would be responsible for paying at least 70 percent of upgrading costs, which they are reluctant to do.
“There are more irrigators in the States that rely on the Milk River than there are in Canada, but it’s still very prohibitive for them to take on a project of that magnitude,” said Ross.
“And at this point too, most of them still see the water running. Some of them don’t really understand that that water could go away. If that diversion washed out, all of a sudden they wouldn’t have water. It could happen 10 minutes from now and that diversion could be potentially shut off for the rest of the summer.”
Thus a dam on the Canadian side would provide water security, said Ford.
“As far as the County (of Warner) goes, we’re in full support of getting some kind of storage, and it’s all about water security for the region. Over the last 50 years or so, two out of three years we’re short of water.”
Warner county applied in the past for funds through the provincial flood and drought resiliency program with the goal of improving water security, but the project was too large for the amount of funds available, said Ford.
He thinks the summary report indicates the desirability of getting an updated engineering and environmental study so an on-stream dam can one day be built.
“This is a long-term investment so I think if the merit was proven, which I think it already has been, it would have to go through all those steps again.
“I think it’s a very viable project and probably more so now because of the power generation. That was really never considered in the studies that have been done over the past number of years.
“To me it’s a no brainer. It should have been done a long time ago. I think the biggest hurdle for us is going to be all the species-at-risk stuff.”
Previous studies have indicated three species of fish, some or all of them considered endangered, would be affected by a dam on the Milk. The silvery minnow, Rocky Mountain sculpin and the stonecat, a species of catfish, have all been identified as potentially at risk.
The on-stream storage site deemed the most viable would flood part of the Twin Rivers Heritage Rangeland Natural Area, which has recently been considered for expansion. Ross said that loss could be offset by adding land to the natural area on its other side.
With the summary report now filed, those on the Canadian side await yet another report, this one from the Joint International Committee that was struck years ago to manage international water flow. Ford said that report is now in the Montana governor’s office awaiting action.
Whatever it says, it almost certainly won’t involve the provision of U.S. funds for any Canadian project, should one be undertaken.
“I wouldn’t expect any American money to come up to help us build it,” said Ross.
“Just like there would be no Canadian money going down to the U.S. to help them with the diversion.… It wouldn’t fly at all, although it would make sense for that to happen.”
Ford, who noted a dam on the Milk River was actually approved some years ago before cancellation due to budget concerns, said he is impatient for government action on the file.
“I think the biggest thing we would like is the province to make a decision. Yes or no. If it’s yes, let’s move to the next step. And as far as funding goes, that’s the last thing — to come up with the money to actually build the thing. But that’s a ways off yet.”
So the Milk River continues to meander amid the machinations of municipal, provincial and federal governments, in addition to international agencies.
Ross and others are well aware of the challenges involved.
“It looks like a pretty simple little river but there’s a lot of complexity to it.”