A Mother’s Milk (River): Down to A Trickle but Still Causing Waves

Along the normally placid U.S./Canadian border, American officials are causing waves by contending that the U.S. is not getting its adequate share from the Milk and St. Mary’s Rivers which flow into the Canadian province of Alberta. As the Calgary Herald noted recently, this argument is not just about competing claims between Montana and Alberta, but part of a bigger problem of competing claims between provinces, between native Canadians and provinces, and between development and farming:

“…The St. Mary and Milk rivers, which meander between Canada and the United States, are some of the most closely watched bodies of water in North America.

…In previous years, both Montana and Alberta have taken pictures of the rivers from beyond Earth, checking to ensure no one grabs more than their fair share.

The two governments have a complex agreement to divvy the water. Essentially, Alberta is entitled to as much as three-quarters of the larger St. Mary River during irrigation season, from April to October, while Montana gets three-quarters of the smaller Milk River.

On both sides of the border, farms, communities and businesses have been built around those river amounts. If not for hundreds of millions of dollars spent on dams, canals and pipelines, this would be a barren prairie landscape.

Every last drop counts, which is why Montana wants more — and Alberta refuses to give it up.

As the province grapples with closing its southern rivers to more domestic water withdrawals, transboundary conflicts over the resource are taking on new importance.

Besides Montana, the province has a water-sharing deal with Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, talks have begun to create agreements with British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

The international dispute with Montana has been simmering since 2003, when then-state governor Judy Martz wrote to the rivers’ governing body, asking it to change a 1921 agreement to give the state an equal share.

Montana complains the deal gives it only 40 per cent of the water.

Alberta contends altering the eight-decades-old pact would have terrible consequences for 2,000 farmers who depend on the water to irrigate 2,120 square kilometres of crops.

Rural communities driven by their agricultural business would also suffer.

“There is no need to reopen the agreement,” Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said ahead of a meeting in October between Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, in which the water dispute was back on the agenda.

“I think that there is a solution here somewhere along the line.”

In a world of bilateral negotiations and international agreements, Alberta’s water use is under a microscope.

Neighbours are watching — and measuring — every drop.

The South Saskatchewan River begins where the Bow and Oldman rivers end, just west of Medicine Hat.

Near Saskatchewan, it picks up the Red Deer River before crossing the provincial boundary, leaving Alberta for good.

Fourteen measuring sites supervised by the Prairie Provinces Water Board keep track of water between the two provinces. By law, Alberta must give Saskatchewan half of the water that flows east across the boundary.

In the severe drought years of 1988 and 2001, Alberta used 42 per cent of the river’s natural flow — double the normal rate — to provide moisture to parched municipalities, farms and other industries in its populous south.

Still, parts of the province were short of water those years.

The most recent drought prompted the Alberta government to muse aloud about keeping more of its share from flowing east by building more dams and other forms of storage.

Even without additional storage, water use will increase as Alberta’s booming industrial and population growth fuels greater demand.

Alberta’s drive to use more water worries some in Saskatchewan.

About a quarter of Saskatchewan’s energy supply comes from hydroelectricity, which depends on high river flows. Less water means less power, and possibly higher electrical bills for customers.

Susan Lamb, chief executive of Meewasin Valley Authority in Saskatchewan, warned of higher energy bills back in 2002, if Alberta followed through with diverting more water for storage in reservoirs and coulees. At the pace it was growing, she expected Alberta would max out its 50-per-cent share within 10 to 15 years.

Cross-border concerns don’t stop on the eastern edge of Alberta, though.

While legally binding water agreements in southern Alberta span decades, negotiations for rivers in northern Alberta have only recently begun.

Until the advent of oilsands development, shortages weren’t seen as an issue in the water-rich north, where 80 per cent of Alberta’s water supplies 20 per cent of its population.

By 2015, however, the petroleum industry is expected to require more than half a trillion litres of water annually, double what it uses today.

Energy and other industrial developments, including pulp mills and diamond mining, have spurred Alberta, British Columbia and Northwest Territories to talk about water.

Alberta expects to reach a river-flow deal with B.C. for the Peace River next year. An agreement with N.W.T. for the Slave River is slated for 2010.

The negotiations have brought other concerns, such as aboriginal treaty rights and water pollution, to the forefront.

Northern B.C. Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations wants an equal spot for aboriginals at the water bargaining table. He’s also calling for a study of the cumulative effects of industrial development on the Peace, Athabasca and other northern rivers.

…Jurisdictional conflicts over water rights are expected to intensify as more of the world runs short of the resource, says longtime water crusader Maude Barlow, head of the the Council of Canadians.

Her attention is turned firmly south, on the most powerful country in the world.

The United States is thirsty. The arid American southwest is a hot spot for newcomers.

Increasing demand for water from 30 million people in seven states has further strained the Colorado River, experiencing its worst drought on record.

In wildfire-prone California, with more residents than all of Canada, desalination of ocean water is being considered to satisfy growing needs.

Plans to divert water to the United States from Canada percolate from time to time.

Some economists have argued in favour of bulk water exports, contending Canada could profit greatly from selling its water. Public opinion, though, appears strongly against exporting water.

Opinion polls aren’t enough, former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed contends.

He believes the North American Free Trade Agreement leaves the door open to water trading. Lougheed wants Ottawa to address the gap and eliminate the possibility.

“My experience is, if you wait until they are coming toward us, it is not nearly as effective as saying, ‘We are not going to do it,’ ” says Lougheed, who delivered a speech in Calgary two years ago called, Water: More Important Than Oil.

“That was the whole purpose of my making that address, is to get Canadians to start to become aware that (sometime) soon we are going to get an approach by the Americans . . . with regard to our fresh water.”

Back at the St. Mary River, a group of American government officials and engineers talks about possible “catastrophes.”

They’re spending the late September day touring an aging dam and its network of canals and pipelines, essential to diverting water to 660 eastern Montana farms and 14,000 residents.

But two massive steel pipes that stretch about a kilometre up and down the valley, diverting St. Mary’s water to the starved Milk River, are in danger of breaking apart.

“We know that the ground is moving here and it’s taking the pipes along for a ride,” engineer Erling Juel tells the group.

“If something was to happen in a negative fashion, this could be the most environmentally and economically disastrous thing that could occur.”

Without water from the St. Mary River, the Montana government estimates the smaller Milk River would run dry six out of every 10 years.

The state, however, doesn’t have $153 million US to fix the dam network itself.

Washington has been reluctant to contribute funding for the infrastructure project.

Montana even asked the Alberta government to pitch in. It said no.

Still, the request to change the international agreement looms unresolved.

The International Joint Commission, created to settle water disputes between Canada and the United States, hasn’t concluded its review of Montana’s 2003 request to reopen the agreement.

And south of the border, the desire for more water hasn’t dissipated.

On average, Montana contends it receives about 40 per cent of the St. Mary and Milk rivers, whereas Alberta gets 60 per cent.

The state is also dealing with unsettled aboriginal water claims that could require a large share of the water.

The St. Mary River dam system was built on Blackfoot land nearly a century ago. The tribe, however, has limited access to water, says Don Wilson, Blackfoot representative in water negotiations.

“This is our backyard,” he says as the tour group navigates from stop to stop.

“And we have no water.”

Then there’s the frustration of desperate Montana farmers who often can’t get the water they need.

Montana and Alberta have fought over these same waters before.

At the turn of the past century, the two countries were each planning large irrigation projects to lure settlers to the West.

American proposals for a diversion dam on the St. Mary infuriated Canada. Worried its share of the river would be sucked dry, Canada began plotting to divert the Milk River, building a canal in 1903.

The dispute led to the creation of a 1909 treaty, the foundation for today’s Alberta-Montana water-sharing agreement — and a century of conflict.

After two extremely dry years reduced the Milk River to nothing more than a bed of sand and gravel, Alberta rancher Tom Gilchrist’s hopes for a dam on the Milk were revived in 2002.

The province studied the proposal until Montana balked.

Today, Alberta’s dam study remains locked away until the water dispute is settled, likely years away….”

This entry was posted on Friday, December 7th, 2007 at 12:10 am and is filed under Canada, Milk River, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2024 Water Politics LLC .  'Water Politics', 'Water. Politics. Life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.