Water will run through Milk River again after repairs to U.S. canal finish up

Water in southern Alberta’s Milk River could soon be flowing at full capacity again, after it was on the verge of drying up completely.

The river, which weaves and winds its way from Montana through southern Alberta and back into the United States, was interrupted upstream in May due to a system failure in the diversion system, which brought water levels in the river way down.

However, due to lots of rainfall this summer and quick completion time on repairs, things are looking up.

Tim Romanow, executive director of the Milk River Watershed Council of Canada, says reconstruction is nearly complete on part of a canal in Montana that diverts water into Alberta.

“There’s a bit more earthwork that needs to be done on the project, but they’re getting there. They can see the finish line finally.” 

He says water should be flowing by next week, depending on the weather.

The Milk River weaves and winds its way through southern Alberta and Montana. (Google Maps)

On the canal, Romanow says, water is diverted through a 47-kilometre system with two “incredibly engineered” gravity siphons that lift water up out of the St. Mary River 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.

He says the infrastructure, which is 105 years old, had a failure at a concrete drop structure on the St. Mary Canal in Montana.

“The steel of the siphons, for instance, is the age of the Titanic,” he said. 

“It’s been like a vehicle with a check engine light on. When everything starts going, it all goes at once, and it’s well overdue for some maintenance.”

When it finally blew, Romanow says, the Milk River was down to only natural flow for the rest of summer. 

“Luckily, the Montana folks rallied real quick. They got a contractor picked within the first week and had crews on site to start doing the work,” he said.

Despite the quick reaction time, the damage still affected a lot of people.

Romanow says the water supply helps irrigate over 105,000 acres in Montana and about 8,600 acres in Canada. It also supplies drinking water for towns and villages. 

“When the diversion first failed, there’s 40 farm families (in southern Alberta) that would have been directly impacted from just the irrigation losses, never mind other producers that are reliant on the river for livestock watering and municipalities.”

He says they were fortunate as there was an inch or two of rain almost every week through May, June and the first part of July.

“We projected direct losses just for irrigation farmers to be anywhere from $3.5- to $5-million and we really were able to limp along through most of the summer,” he said.

“Our producers did a great job of of being water conscious, and our municipalities did a great job of implementing strategies to reduce usage.”

However, he says the reality is, there is about $150-million worth of infrastructure that also still needs to be either repaired or have full replacement.

“There’s some major challenges there and there’s some environmental concerns that are still being addressed on the Montana side with regards to the bull trout entrapment and species-at-risk issues,” he said.

With files from Lucie Edwardson and the Calgary Eyeopener.

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