Thursday, 15 March 2018 12:18

Milk River Watershed hoping for calmer waters in 2018

Written by  Demi Knight
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The Milk River Watershed that shares water between Milk River and St. Mary River is nestled between Canada and the United States and has over 100 years of history within their waters.

However the past year wasn’t smooth sailing for the watershed, and now it works to overcome some key issues that have presented themselves within the last twelve months.
With the watershed experiencing some significant challenges this past year in water security, licensing with and droughts that impacted thousands of acres of land both within Alberta and Montana, Watershed officials are working hard to pull through these tough times to bring the area out the other side stronger.
“There are some significant challenges that were exposed this past year with water security, and some confusing actions regarding surface water licences with producers out east this winter,” says Tim Romanow, Executive Director of the Milk River Watershed Council Canada.
“But we are working with Alberta Environment and Parks on some improved communications for the short term to allow producers and our municipalities to make more informed decisions, and with some luck and continued cooperation some long term solutions.”
The waters of the Milk and St. Mary rivers that are shared by Canada and the United States under the terms of the boundary waters treaty as administered by the International Joint Commission and its order written in 1921, also share a Letter of Intent (LOI) which is a balancing solution that ultimately allows deficits in different areas of the watershed throughout the season.
Although this LOI that was introduced in the 1980’s has up to this point been mutually beneficial for both parties affected by the watershed, by allowing them to use more of their allotted share during different points of the season to benefit irrigators' needs, this year however the LOI has seen the balance fall completely off, allowing for a large problem to build that affects everyone. 
“In most years the LOI is mutually beneficial,” says Romanow. “But in 2017, wet spring conditions meant that Montana Reservoirs were full, and they could not use more than its share of the St. Mary River prior to May 31st to form a water deficit with Canada.”
Romanow also added that since there was no deficit to trade against and no water storage in Milk River Watershed in Canada, there was no water available to Canada to offset this deficit that was created by Alberta water users from the third week of June onward.
However, it wasn’t the only problem that the Watershed was facing in the last year, but also a flash drought throughout north Central Montana (see above diagram), which ultimately impacted over 93,000 acres of irrigated land within Montana and an additional 8,600 acres in Alberta. 
With the watershed seeing these significant issues throughout it’s entire stretch Romanow said that although officials are working hard to maintain the areas, more action needs to be taken that benefits all parties involved rather than their own national land.
“We need to stop making decisions in a vacuum, our interconnections are unavoidable, and we need to look at how this Watershed is managed as a single unit without the international border,” explains Romanow. “There is a better way to help ensure the livelihood of all communities, and protect our water security for the future.”
But with all problems comes a silver lining and Romanow added that moving forward into 2018, the water outlook for the area looks good, with levels in Montana returning back to normal in the new year, and melting snow providing replenishment to soil moisture levels moving forward into the spring.

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