Flow of the Milk River was expected to be running bank to bank on Thanksgiving Day, following repairs to water diversion infrastructure on the Montana side of the border.
The Milk has been relying on natural flow since May, when structure failure south of the border put a halt to the usual water diversion from the St. Mary River into the Milk to augment its water levels.
Tim Romanow, executive director of the Milk River Watershed Council, said optimal autumn weather allowed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to complete repairs in the early days of October and the increased flow had already appeared in the north fork of the Milk as of Oct. 9.
The International Joint Commission, the body guided by the boundary waters treaty, last week accepted a request to remove the “cease irrigation” order imposed earlier this year.
Romanow said that would allow some farmers and ranchers on the Canadian side to water fall-seeded crops and forage before winter arrives.
Some ranchers in the region rely on the Milk River as a natural barrier to cattle in normal years and this year they’ve had to be creative in pasture rotation and managing cattle access to river water.
When word came of water now flowing, the watershed council sent a warning to remove any temporary structures, panels or portable fencing that had been used when water levels were low.
“We wanted to make sure we gave them the heads up,” said Romanow.
Water availability has eased concerns in the Town of Milk River and Village of Coutts, which had to impose water restrictions this summer. Though Milk River Mayor Peggy Losey said earlier this summer that she was confident stored water would be sufficient, normal flow in the river has eased lingering doubts.
Seeing the Milk River running bank to bank at this time of year will be “really weird,” Romanow said, but flows are expected to return to normal late-fall levels by Nov. 1.
Higher water is in part due to release of water in Montana’s Lake Sherburne reservoir, which is being done for safety reasons.
The watershed council has been monitoring water quality and aquatic habitat throughout the summer and will continue to do so until November, Romanow said. The river is home to some at-risk species so fisheries personnel have also been involved in monitoring.