Slow spring melt means Milk River farmers may avoid another summer of water shortages

A slow melting snowpack across the border means more water will be pushed through the Milk River later this season, avoiding a common irrigation problem experienced by 30 to 40 farming families in southern Alberta over the past few years.

Farmers and officials in the southern Alberta area had thought supply would be shut off in early summer

Farmers were worried about their crops in early May after the province warned they could exceed their share of the natural flow of the Milk River again this year. (Elise Walker)

Just under two months ago, Elise Walker was sure her farm near the Milk River would experience another summer of drought conditions.

But with a cool, rainy spring now in the rearview, things are looking much different.

The native prairie has a nice green tinge, she said, and the rain keeps coming.

"It makes a huge difference, considering how dry we've been the past 12 months," she told the Calgary Eyeopener Monday.

To add to the good news — a slow melting snowpack across the border in Montana means more water will be pushed through the Milk River later this season, avoiding a common irrigation problem experienced by 30 to 40 farming families in southern Alberta over the past few years.

Use of the Milk River is restricted by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. It was signed to help resolve disputes over the use of waters shared by Canada and the United States, such as the Milk River, which runs through both Alberta and Montana.

The St. Mary's diversion dam in Montana pushes Milk River waters northeast through Alberta. The river then flows southeast back into the U.S. 

Canada is allotted a certain amount of the river's natural flow to be used for irrigation and other purposes.

Most of that natural flow passes by early in the spring before tapering off, leaving Alberta farmers without enough water for a full season of irrigation.

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

This year, because of the slow snow melt, Montana officials have taken more than their share of water to keep their diversion going. That means they'll have to repay Canadian farmers with more water later this year. 

"That means we should see a full season of irrigation for Milk River water users pending no infrastructure challenges," said executive director of Milk River Watershed Council Canada Tim Romanow in an email.

"The modeling didn't look good this spring, but we got lucky this time."

In future, the situation could change. Over the past few years, it's been tough for farmers to know what the summer conditions will bring.

"There is still a significant drought across most of the watershed and water sources such as ponds, dugouts and some springs are running low or out," Romanow said.

Walker argues some of the uncertainty she and other farmers feel each year could be solved if an off-stream reservoir is built.

It would store some of the river's natural flow in the spring, which could be released later on in the summer for late season irrigation.

"There's no water security for us on the Milk River right now," she said.

"More uncertainty, not knowing, more at stake … It's been tough these last few years."

With files from Jennifer D'Orozio


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