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International St. Mary and Milk Rivers Study Board hosting town hall

Posted on April 27, 2023 by Ryan Dahlman

By Anna Smith


May 2 will offer an opportunity to see which way the water is flowing on the ongoing study on the options to improve access to the apportioned waters of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers.

The story of why this study is taking place at all begins over a century ago, said Canadian Co-chair of the Board and University of Calgary professor Alain Pietroniro.

“The St. Mary system flows into the Saskatchewan River. The Milk River itself actually starts in Montana, goes up into Canada, and then goes back in the States and back into Montana, and then flows into the Mississippi. So the St. Mary is a higher yielding river, it produces more flow,” said Pietroniro. “Back in 1909, clever engineers decided that they could divert water from the St. Mary system and bring it into the Milk River system.”

This, at the time, resulted in Canadian farmers digging what was called the “spite ditch,” in order to direct water back into the St. Mary River, eventually prompting the creation of a treaty to apportion the water, as well as the the IGC, or the International Joint Commission.

Since then, there has been an officer on both sides, to measure that the flow of water is occurring properly, estimate what the natural flow is, compared to actual, and ensure that the terms of the treaty are upheld.

Pietroniro was once one of these officers, on the Canadian side, and at the time, he noticed something alongside his U.S. counterpart.

“The U.S. always felt like they weren’t getting their fair share of the water. Although they were entitled to certain amounts of water, the issue was that they weren’t actually getting it at the right times of the year,” said Pietroniro. “And so often, they wouldn’t get the total volume that they were entitled to get on the U.S. side, and Canadians tended to get more. Just because of the nature of the transit, just not a lot of storage on the system, you can’t store water for large periods of time. And so what happens is often water, because of the nature of spring runoff, you can’t use that water for irrigation in the summer. So that to us, was often not getting what they were completely entitled to in terms of the flows.”

Eventually, Pietroniro and his counterpart began to wonder if there was a better way to manage the water across both basins.

“So we wanted to look at ways we could calculate flows across the border, that were perhaps different that allowed for more beneficial use on both sides of the border. And so we proposed some nonstructural options, to see how we can maybe better manage the flow across both the rivers. And then we’re also looking at some possible structural options to recommend structural options that would include increasing the conveyance in the basin,” said Pietroniro.

Over the now-several years that the still ongoing study has been underway, there has been much public consultation and information, as they strive to be as transparent as possible, which brings them to the May 2 town hall.

The event will take place at the Best Western Boothill Inn & Suites, located at 1425 Highway 2 NW, in Havre, Montana, from 6pm-8pm (MST). All are encouraged to attend, regardless of what side of the border they reside on or which river they rely on for irrigation.

The purpose of this meeting is to update the public on the study’s progress and plans, as well as to solicit public feedback on future engagement. Some members of the study’s Technical Working Groups will be in attendance, with the Study Board presenting information on various technical topics these groups have been working on. The board is very interested in hearing the perspectives of citizens around the basin and looks forward to conversing with a wide range of water users, according to a press release.

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