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Aging water diversion infrastructure in Montana needs replacement: McIver

Posted on August 24, 2023 by Taber Times

By Heather Cameron
Taber Times
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

On August 10, Ric McIver, Minister of Municipal Affairs, attended a tour of the St. Mary Canal and the repaired Drop 5 infrastructure in Montana along with several other representatives from southern Alberta communities.

“It was certainly an interesting learning experience for me,” McIver said. “I guess what probably a lot of people in southern Alberta know that other people in the world don’t know is that Milk River runs through the United States into Canada and then down again into the United States. And the Milk River, if it was left unaffected by human technology, would run really high in the spring for a few months. And it would be essentially bone dry or next to bone dry for months during the middle and late summer, which is not extra useful for human endeavours.”

McIver states that there are structures on the river that have been there for about 100 years, and are  nearing the point where someone is going to have to spend some money on them to update and fix them. One structure, McIver said, is a dam on the Milk River that holds back all the spring runoff before it flows through and heads down to the Gulf of Mexico. The dam, McIver stated, also holds the water back in the spring and apportions it so that it lasts all summer.

Further from that, McIver says, there is a river transfer works in the U.S. that diverts river water from the St. Mary River. McIver says that a good portion of the water from the St. Mary River goes through an extended canal system to join up with the Milk River, so the water that’s there lasts throughout the season and throughout the year because in Alberta, McIver says, there’s Milk River and one of the municipalities that depends upon the water from the Milk River for drinking and municipal purposes. There’s also thousands of acres of irrigation land in southern Alberta that is irrigated out of the Milk River. 

McIver says when the water flows back to the U.S. side, there’s thousands more acres of agricultural land that gets irrigated out of the Milk River. 

“This infrastructure is very important to the United States, to Canada, to the state of Montana, to the government of Alberta and municipalities along the way,” McIver said. “The infrastructure includes the initial dam that holds back the spring runoff for use throughout the summer and the year, including a diversion project on the St. Mary that diverts a good portion of the water into the canal, and then an extended canal system, which includes siphons that were built a hundred years ago. And I was amazed to learn about and see that.” 

McIver stated the tour of the canal and infrastructure involved getting on a bus with approximately 30 other people, some being from municipalities across southern Alberta, others from agricultural groups, representatives from Montana and at least one representative from the U.S. federal government, as well as the board members who are responsible for the St. Mary River and Milk River Diversion Project.

The tour, McIver said, was really designed to help others understand it and also to drive the point home that there’s going to be some investment required in this very important system, sooner rather than later, in order to keep it operational. 

“This is super crucial to the people of southern Alberta,” McIver said. “It requires international cooperation, and we need to have a partner-to-partner discussion because it’s international between the Government of Canada and the government of the United States as well as between Alberta and Montana to talk about the continuation of making this work because it’s obviously crucial to both sides. We need to be vigilant to make sure that the water that we currently depend upon, both for agriculture and for human use, is protected and we all need to pay attention to that.”

McIver emphasized that the common conversation among those in attendance at the tour concurred with his statement in that there is some urgency to the Canadian and U.S. governments working together and the Alberta-Montana side working together to make sure that the investment takes place in time; that all groups involved don’t lose all this agricultural production and water for their municipalities. 

“I’m certainly hopeful that the Canadian government and U.S. government have active and productive conversations about making sure that this crucial water sharing, water diversion program that’s been going on for over a hundred years continues for everyone’s benefit,” McIver said.

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