Alberta access to water from the Milk River at the mercy of century-old U.S. infrastructure

By Catherine Griwkowsky August 24, 2023

Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Rick McIver and MRWCC Chairman John A. Ross on the St Mary’s Syphon near Babb, MT (Tim Romanow)

The fate of a southern Alberta watershed rests with water diversion infrastructure in Montana that is more than a century old and in need of hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs.

Three years after the failure of a major part of the St. Mary’s Canal facility in Montana, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver joined a contingent of politicians earlier this month to see firsthand the infrastructure that the Milk River requires to supply the area with its sole source of drinking water, as well as agricultural and recreational uses.

There are signs of bipartisan support in the U.S. to fund the modernization of the St. Mary’s Canal facilities, which diverts water into the Milk River.

Tim Romanow with the Milk River Watershed Council of Canada says the system has been “fixed on failures” — only receiving attention when some part fails — and told Alberta Today he wanted to organize a tour to show elected officials the importance of the infrastructure to the water.

“We’re at the mercy of what happens in Montana, but we can also support our partners in Montana, and make sure that we do our best for water conservation and for infrastructure on the Canadian side,” Romanow said.

The system to divert water from the St. Mary’s River through a canal that runs into the Milk River watershed includes a siphon with concrete slide-like structures and a series of  five “drops” that carry the water down 214 feet. It was built in the early 1900s.

When “Drop 5” failed in May 2020, waterflow to Milk River went from 118 cubic meters per second to four cubic meters per second.

“They went from a real sizable river down to a trickle,” Romanow said.

The 2020 summer was rainy, a lucky break for the Milk River, according to Romanow, who said had the region seen dry conditions like this year, the situation for those reliant on the river’s water could have become dire.

“I wish that we could say it was because we had such great planning and we had such great contingencies in place and we knew exactly what we were doing,” he said. “But it wasn’t. We were learning as we went.”

Drop 5 was replaced in 2020 after the diversion failure (Tim Romanow)

Firsthand look

Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver and a delegation of officials recently visited the St. Mary’s canal earlier this month, including Drop 5, which washed out in 2020 but was quickly rebuilt with cooperation between the state, provincial and federal governments following a spate of negotiations. The water was shut off in June and flowing at normal capacity again by October.

“The State of Montana and the province of Alberta have a huge stake in the success of those negotiations and successful funding of that infrastructure,” McIver said.

Drop 5, however, was just the tip of the iceberg of repairs needed in the century-old water diversion structures.

McIver marvelled at the system, which includes steel imported from Chicago and rivets added by hand.

“When you think about the engineering expertise and effort that was made over 100 years ago, and the fact that it’s still successfully working today — well, somebody a lot smarter than me really did some hard work on that,” he said.

McIver said experiencing something is the easiest way to learn, and in this case he learned by walking on two 10-foot steel siphons, vibrating from the flow of water.

“It was fun,” McIver said. “Everybody was careful not to fall off.”

The Milk River naturally sees a rush in the spring but would dry up to nothing later in the year. The Americans hold back water to be released in the summer, allowing for irrigation and recreation in Montana and Alberta.

Romanow explained the Alberta towns of Milk River and Coutts developed around the diversion — as did Sweet Grass, Montana — and without it the towns may not exist.

On the Alberta side, approximately 40 farms rely on the river to irrigate 8,600 acres of land.

In Montana, water from the Milk River serves about 150,000 acres of farmland.

A map of the Milk River Project.

Cooperation made rebuild swift

When Drop 5 failed, planning was already underway to fix Drop 2, which was in the worst shape of the five drops.

Local MLAs and MPs worked with Global Affairs Canada to establish a temporary crossing — border crossings were closed due to Covid restrictions — while U.S. officials secured an emergency waiver of buy-American rules, which allowed crews to to import aggregate and cement for the repair effort from Cardston. The infrastructure was back up and running by winter, and using Canadian construction materials shaved six weeks off the Drop 5 project time.

“They wasted no time,” Romanow said.

Dave Peterson, coordinator of the St. Mary’s Working Group, said securing funding for needed repairs has been an issue since 2001, when he was public works director for Havre, Montana. At present, the infrastructure deficit for the century-old system is about $300 million, he estimates.

A sustainable funding formula is one issue the group is trying to solve. Currently, 75 per cent of funding for the infrastructure work comes from the Montana side of the border.

“It’s not like the farmers and ranchers from Milk River can say, ‘hey, we’ll give you money to fix that,’ because you’ve got two different countries involved and you’ve got the International Joint Commission involved,” Peterson said.

The U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed with bipartisan support, will provide $100 million toward the diversion dam and works, with the remainder for other parts of the Milk River Project. Montana is also looking to contribute $26 million for the project.

The Fort Belknap Indian community has also been working to get a water settlement bill passed. Legislation currently before the U.S. Senate includes $275 million to restore the St. Mary’s Canal as part of a compact on water rights.

Peterson lamented the fact it takes catastrophic failures for authorities to act, rather than proactive maintenance, with the failure of Drop 5 as an example.

“It always seems like it takes something drastic to make something happen,” he said.