The Milk River has slowed to a trickle and is on the verge of drying up completely this summer due to a canal collapse in the U.S., raising fears of millions of dollars in crop damage and other problems for dozens of farms and communities in southern Alberta.
The river weaves and winds its way from Montana through southeastern Alberta and back into the U.S. state.
Tim Romanow, executive director of the Milk River Watershed Council of Canada, said the problem was caused by a catastrophic failure of a concrete drop structure on the St. Mary Canal in Montana over the May long weekend.
Romanow said this issue has effectively reduced the flow of water on the Alberta side to a trickle, even though the province has received so much rain of late that some areas have struggled with flooding.
“Generally, there would be 18 cubic metres per second of water flowing in the Milk River this time of year, of which by the late summer over 80 per cent of that flow would be diversion water from the St. Mary’s system,” he explained to the Calgary Eyeopener on Monday.
“Without any water being transferred right now, we’re down to about 4½ cubic metres per second. So it’s a trickle.”
He said a lot of people don’t realize there is a connection between the St. Mary’s River and the Milk River down in Montana, with the headwater “basically on the toe slopes of Glacier National Park.”
Tons of concrete collapsed on U.S. canal
Romanow said water is diverted through a 47-kilometre canal system with two “incredibly engineered” gravity siphons that lift water up out of the St. Mary’s base.
It then travels through a series of five drop structures that ease the water back down a 76-metre descent to the north fork of the Milk River, which then flows into Canada for about 280 kilometres before returning to Montana.
On May 17, Romanow said the fifth drop structure, located in Montana on the Alberta border, experienced a massive collapse.
“Basically we lost 240-plus feet of concrete structure that moves the water down and we’ve been stuck with having to do repairs down there with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to restore water,” he said.
Romanow warned the Milk River could dry out completely.
“It’s entirely possible. We’re benefiting right now from very consistent rain storms over the last three weeks now,” he said.
“So it keeps buying us time for the aquatic environment and our water users on the river, but unfortunately things change on a dime and it’s entirely possible that by July we’ll start seeing some real challenges.”
Dry river could have a huge impact
Romanow said the impacts of the river running dry are huge.
“It’s completely collapsed the tourism industry. The Milk River is known as one of the top 10 paddling rivers in Canada,” he said.
“We get lots of folks that come down from Calgary and Edmonton and other areas just to paddle the river and that’s not happening this year.”
Further, there are nearly four dozen farm families that rely on the river for irrigation purposes.
“And there are some high value crops in there and the direct impact to those farm families is probably two to three million dollars in losses this year alone,” he said.
Municipal drinking water for the town of Milk River, the Village of Coutts and Sweet Grass, MT., all come from the Milk River, too.
“Right now, the towns and villages have about a three-month supply of water but that doesn’t take into consideration if there are any major fire events,” said Romanow.
“The longer we keep getting these rains, it’s going to buy us some time, but it’s really exposed water security challenges in our basin that need to be addressed.”
The Alberta government said Environment and Parks will support water users in the Milk River basin with an updated water supply outlook, updates on infrastructure repairs south of the border, details on allotments and water use by each country and support for water conservation planning, as necessary.
“With no canal in place, water licence holders in Alberta should be prepared for only natural flows on the Milk River throughout the summer and should proactively explore options for water conservation.”
The government said no impacts to drinking water or household use are expected.
“The province provided the Town of Milk River with funding to increase water storage,” reads the news release.
“The town’s current stored water supply would support four months of water use in the event the town was unable to draw any more water from the river.
The only other time the Milk River ran dry was during a drought in 2001, at the end of a particularly hot, dusty, summer. In 2017, farmers in the southern Alberta area were told to stop irrigating their crops after Aug. 3.
‘Fix on fail’
According to Romanow, all of the Milk River’s water transfer system was engineered in the early 1900s and built before 1915.
“The reality is that everything has been fix on fail ever since,” he said.
In Alberta, Romanow said there has been a lot of investment in irrigation structures, but there have been challenges accessing funding and keeping up with that work in northern Montana.
According to a news release from the province, on the U.S. side, a decision has been made to fix the collapsed drop that failed, with completion scheduled for September. It will be paid for by U.S. officials.
“We recognize the severity of the situation and the importance of the Milk River basin to surrounding communities and the local economy,” said Jason Nixon, Alberta’s minister of environment and parks.
“Environment and Parks is supporting Alberta water users and working with our federal and U.S. counterparts to keep water users informed as work to repair the canal progresses.”
But that’s just the start. Romanow said there is roughly $175-million infrastructure deficit (in U.S. dollars) on the U.S. side of the border that needs repair “right away.”
“And that has not been funded yet, so it’s a challenge,” he said.