By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
An international commission is coming to the Hi-Line next week to hear what people think about how Canada and the United States share the water of the Milk River. The meetings were scheduled after Gov. Judy Martz requested the International Joint Commission revisit a 1921 order specifying how the water would be shared.
A state study conducted last year showed that Canada is receiving more water than Montana as a result of the order.
"It does not divide the water equally between the two countries," said Paul Azevedo of the state's Department of Water Quality Water Management Bureau.
The Milk River supplies water to irrigators from Havre east to the Missouri River, and supplies water to the communities of Havre, Chinook, Harlem and Fort Belknap as well as the water districts in western Hill County and north of Havre.
The IJC was created by a 1909 treaty dealing with water usage on the boundary of the United States and Canada. The commission works to prevent and resolve disputes relating to the use and quality of boundary waters and to advise Canada and the United States on related questions.
Val Mellesmoen, spokeswoman for the minister of Alberta Environment, said Alberta is willing to look at ways to improve the water management, but doesn't want to revisit the 1921 order or renegotiate the treaty.
"We're pretty satisfied with how it's working," she said. "It's as fair as it can get."
Mellesmoen said she will be at the meetings in Montana to present Alberta's position on the 1921 order.
Frank Bevacqua, information officer for the International Joint Commission in Washington, D.C., said the purpose for the meetings is to hear comments from people in the Milk River and St. Mary River basins about water uses, the supply of water and their views on how the 1921 order is being implemented. The meetings are scheduled in Havre Monday; Malta Tuesday; Eastend, Saskatchewan, next Wednesday and Lethbridge, Alberta on July 29.
The IJC will use the information from the meetings and its tour of the area to decide whether to revisit the agreement , he said.
The state group working to rehabilitate the St. Mary Diversion, which supplies much of the water in the Milk River each year, is meeting in Havre Monday in conjunction with the IJC meeting.
Azevedo, state coordinator for the St. Mary project, said the project's working group hopes people will attend both the St. Mary project meeting and the IJC meetings. A presentation on the issues of the 1921 order is scheduled for the afternoon portion of the St. Mary working group meeting.
The Montana study shows that Montana is shortchanged because, during the irrigation season, it receives a high percentage of the natural flow of the Milk River while Canada receives a high percentage of the St. Mary River, Azevedo said. The St. Mary typically is a fast-moving river which flows year-round, while the Milk is a slower moving river with a natural flow that usually dries up during the summer, he said.
The 1921 order specifies that during the irrigation season the United States is entitled to three-fourths of the Milk River flow and Canada is entitled to three-fourths of the St. Mary River flow when the rivers' natural flow is 666 cubic feet-per-second or less; when the flows are greater than that the countries are entitled to 500 cubic feet-per-second of the respective rivers.
The 1909 treaty said the two rivers would be considered one stream, with the water divided equally but each country able to take more than half of the flow of one river during irrigation season.
Mellesmoen said that while it is true the St. Mary generally has more water than the Milk, there are better ways to adjust the allocation than revisiting a document that has worked for 83 years.
"We'd rather look at partnerships than looking at treaty renegotiations," she said. "Water is a concern for everybody."
Alberta has built a highly developed infrastructure and designed a water management system based on the 1921 order that supports communities and farmers and ranchers in southern Alberta, she said.
Alberta hopes the IJC meetings will help raise awareness of issues on both sides of the border, Mellesmoen said.
The St. Mary Diversion, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of the Milk River irrigation project, is integrally related to the water issue. The system diverts water stored in Lake Sherburne on Swift Current Creek to the Milk River after it enters the St. Mary river. The diversion supplies as much as 70 percent of the water in the Milk River in normal years, and supplied more than 90 percent of the water in the river during the drought year of 2001.
Construction of the diversion started in 1906. Now Lt. Gov. Karl Ohs is spearheading an effort to find money to rebuild it, with an estimated cost near $100 million. The project has outlasted its design life by 30 to 50 years without major reconstruction.
The IJC was created by a 1909 treaty between the United States and Great Britain, which controlled the Dominion of Canada at the time. The treaty was signed to prevent disputes and resolve questions about water systems on the boundary of Canada and the United States.
The meeting of the St. Mary Diversion working group is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday at the Triangle Telephone Cooperative community room. It will be followed by the IJC meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the Montana State University-Northern Ballroom in the Student Union Building.