Water has been a thorn between Alberta and Montana for years, but thanks to a citizen-based Joint Initiative Team (JIT) a new understanding on the sharing of the waters in the St. Mary and Milk rivers has never been closer.
About 20 southern Alberta irrigation district officials met recently with the Alberta JIT for a negotiations update of the Montana – Alberta St. Mary & Milk Rivers Water Management Initiative.
Roger Hohm, section head for the basin water management section of Alberta Agriculture and irrigation secretariat for the Alberta Irrigation Council, outlined the basics of the negotiations launched about a year ago when the JIT was created in Alberta and Montana.
He outlined the approved terms of reference for the job of finding a new formula to share the waters of the two rivers, both which rise in Glacier National Park in Montana. The Milk River flows into Alberta for a stretch before flowing southeast to the 190,000 acres of irrigation in northern Montana. The St. Mary flows directly through Alberta to Hudson Bay.
The terms of reference objectives are simple. It is hoped participants will aim to develop a better understanding of the similarities and differences in how Montana and Alberta manage water while identifying constraints to improving access to the shared water.
Hohm said the plan is to also try to link water management decisions by meeting the needs of water users in both jurisdictions while looking after the environment and aquatic considerations. Management flexibility will be required.
At the heart of the debate is the 1901 International Joint Commission (IJC) committee set up with three commissioners each from Canada and the United States, charged with finding solutions to water issues across the continent. In 1921, the IJC issued an order on the sharing of the Milk and St. Mary rivers. It has been challenged three times by the U.S., the latest by then-Governor Judy Martz who said Canada was stealing some of the U.S. allocation.
Robert Harrison of Edmonton, the Alberta JIT co-chairman, said great strides have been made by the two committees, including visits to irrigation works in both jurisdictions.
Technical specialists from both areas have worked hard to build on the list of options and opportunities to find common ground on both sides of the 49th parallel. About 77 of those options have been run through complicated computer models to show both sides the impacts and scenarios each change would have in both countries.
The Alberta committee includes producers Ken MIller and Tom Gilchrist of Milk River and Gerald Perry of Coaldale. They are complemented by former provincial agriculture official and Coaldale Mayor Duncan Lloyd representing the Oldman Watershed Council, Tim Toth with Alberta Environment and Brent Paterson, director of the irrigation and farm water division of Alberta Agriculture.
The Montana committee is chaired by Anne Yates who succeeded John Tubbs who moved to Washington to work for President Barack Obama. That committee also includes producers, one civic official and representatives of the Blackfoot Nation at Browning and the Fort Belknap Tribe near Havre.
The two committees will continue to have joint meetings in December and January and provide its final report in the spring. That report will go to Montana Governer Brian Schweitzer and Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. After any acceptance there, it will go to the IJC to become the new water management agreement.
Harrison said it is hoped that with the strong degree of co-operation and an ultimate water management agreement that will allow both Alberta and Montana to attain the optimum value of their share of the water, that Montana will remove its formal request for a review of the IJC agreement.