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International study examining water apportionment between St. Mary and Milk Rivers

Posted on August 17, 2023 by Taber Times

By Heather Cameron
Taber Times
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

“For over a century, the United States and Canada have shared the waters of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers through agreements negotiated by both countries,” Carole Smith, Policy, Programs, and Communications for the International Joint Commission, said. “Over time, many things have changed.”

Smith says that factors including changes to climate, the growing season, and the adequacy of canals and other structures that are used to store and move water have impacted water apportionment since the International Joint Commission issued its initial Order more than 100 years ago in 1921. 

An example of things that have affected apportionment, Smith says, include an incident in May 2020 when a portion of the St. Mary Canal in Montana temporarily stopped the flow of water into the Milk River. Fortunately, Smith says, due to the hard work of many stakeholders, the structure was repaired, and the canal was reopened in October 2020. 

The Government of Alberta website explains that the 1921 Order established the St. Mary River at the international boundary and the Milk River at the eastern crossing as the places where apportionment happens. The roles for Accredited Officers for both the St. Mary and Milk Rivers were also established and clearly outlined along with the treaty. Both Canada and the U.S. appointed one officer to measure and apportion water, including the flow volumes and shares for each country.

In April 2003, the website says, the Government of Alberta requested that the International Joint Commission conduct a review of the 1921 order and in response, the International Joint Commission held four public information sessions in 2004 to gather information about water sharing associated with the Milk River and St. Mary River. As a result of those meetings, the International St. Mary/Milk Rivers Administrative Measures Task Force, with four members from Canada and four members from the U.S., was established. The task’s force first report was released on the International Joint Commission’s website in 2004 and 2006. Their 2004 submission included contributions from Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and Alberta Environment. More information about those reports can be found on the Government of Alberta website under the ‘Water Management’ section. 

Smith states that all of these events, as well as other factors, resulted in the International St. Mary and Milk Rivers study being launched in the fall of 2021. The study, Smith says, was launched with the support of the governments of Canada and the United States who are also helping to fund the work. Smith states that the study is a four-year effort (2021-2025) to assess whether options are available to enhance each country’s access to their share of the water.

Smith says that the technical working groups who are involved in the study started their work by gathering and analyzing existing data about the basin including climate, hydrology, irrigation infrastructure, water rights, water use, and ecology, among other relevant baseline information. 

“They are now evaluating and configuring the models that will be used to evaluate different structural and administrative options,” Smith said. “They are also working to define indicators that can be used to assess the performance and impact of different modelling scenarios.”

Since the study is focused on ways of improving each country’s access to their share of water from the St. Mary and Milk Rivers, Smith says, the findings and recommendations may ultimately benefit water users in the Municipal District of Taber and other municipalities along the watershed, which includes irrigation farmers and municipal users.

The study’s first annual progress report was actually published by the study board in September 2022, and another one is anticipated in the fall of 2023. 

The study involves not only communication with the IJC, Smith says, but also Advisory Groups including a Public Advisory Group and Indigenous Advisory Group, Smith says. 

“They are kept informed about the study and its progress, and their input and assistance are invited to guide its work, particularly with respect to the identification and development of performance indicators,” Smith said.

A newsletter, Smith says, is also associated with the study and is published by the International St. Mary and Milk Rivers Study Board. It publishes this semi-annual newsletter to help keep the public informed about the International St. Mary and Milk Rivers Study. The first newsletter was published in June, Smith says, and is available for viewing in the International St. Mary and Milk Rivers Study Board website’s Library. The public can also subscribe to future newsletters through the International St. Mary and Milk Rivers Study Board’s website.

“The study board’s newsletter is a valuable tool for communicating with people involved directly and indirectly with the study, including the public,” Smith said.

According to the Board’s website, the whole idea for the project originated in 2019 when the accredited officers of St. Mary and Milk Rivers communicated with the International Joint Commission about a proposed study regarding administrative procedural changes and structural options that could potentially improve the access to the St. Mary and Milk Rivers by Canada and the U.S. The communication from the accredited officers included providing documents to the International Joint Commission that outlined details associated with a four-year study of the rivers and surrounding areas. In June 2021, the U.S. and Canadian governments wrote a letter supporting the creation of the study.

“The study will present its final report to the International Joint Commission in June 2025,” Smith said. ““The Commission will then review the report and make recommendations to the governments of both countries for their consideration. Until then, water apportionment will continue to occur under the existing framework.”

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