Havre Daily News
The Milk River has long been a topic of international discussion because of the course it takes - the river flows northeast from the Rocky Mountains into Canada, where it parallels the U.S. border for about 112 miles before turning south and flowing through north-central Montana toward its confluence with the Missouri River. The river is kept flowing year-round with water diverted from the St. Mary River via a 29-mile system of canals, pipes and concrete drop structures located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
Talks about how the two rivers' water is divided aren't new - the splitting of Milk and St. Mary waters between the two countries are the subject of a 1909 treaty and a 1921 international order. The discussion continues in Havre with two meetings on Tuesday.
The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group, an advisory council working to reconstruct the aging diversion facilities that bring St. Mary waters over a divide to the Milk River, has adjusted its meeting schedule so that members, irrigators and residents can learn more about the latest round of talks between the two countries.
An International Joint Commission task force has prepared a report detailing options by which the rivers' division could be improved. The task force was not directed to come up with a preferred alternative. The commission will make a decision on the issue after the report is finalized.
The working group will meet at the Duck Inn Antique Room from noon to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday. Tops on the agenda is the report, working group executive director Larry Mires said today. Working group members will then attend a public meeting, set to begin at 7 p.m. at the Montana State University-Northern Applied Technology Center, to discuss the task force's report.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation area manager Dan Jewell, a member of the task force, today said the group had two missions: study how accurately the Milk and St. Mary waters are divided and develop options to improve that accuracy.
He said that, under the 1921 agreement, the U.S. is supposed to get 45 percent of the combined flows, and Canada is allocated 55 percent. The U.S. has actually been receiving about 40 percent of the water, Jewell said.
“It's not that anybody's taking anybody else's water,” Jewell added. Rather, its that the U.S. does not have the infrastructure in place to divert all of the water it's supposed to recieve, he said.
Improvements to the St. Mary diversion facilities, which would increase its capacity, would have some effect on how much water the U.S. receives, he said. The diversion simply cannot now divert enough water from the St. Mary to the Milk, Jewell said.
The task force set out several ways the U.S. could receive more of its entitled water. Some are technical, such as improving the way the rivers' natural flows are calculated, and some are operational - Jewell said the task force outlined one option in which the U.S. and Canada would jointly operate diversion and reservoir facilities along the rivers.
One option is a matter of accounting, Jewell said. The task force studied ways to divide the rivers' flow over different time periods, including an annual apportionment. Montana state officials like that scenario, Jewell said, and Mires said the St. Mary working group members also are in support of an annual accounting period.
State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation officials, along with Canadian officials, could not be reached for comment today.
The task force will hold a second public hearing on Wednesday in Lethbridge, Alberta, and will accept written comments on the report until June 30. Jewell said he has not received any written comments.
The St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group also will consider budgetary and fundraising items at Tuesday's meeting. The group is awaiting the return of proposed federal legislation, which if passed would make the federal government shoulder the bulk of the $120 million cost of repairing the diversion. A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns today said congressional lawyers are still working on the legislation. He reiterated Burns' commitment to bringing the issue to the Senate floor this summer.