Accredited Officers Host Tour of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers Basin for IJC Commissioners

Diana Moczula
IJC
August 23, 2022
st mary reservoir tour

As the International St. Mary and Milk Rivers (SMMR) Study is progressing, Accredited Officers of the St. Mary and Milk Rivers recently hosted a tour of the basin for Commissioners.

In June, Commissioners had an opportunity to view infrastructure in the SMMR basin and were fortunate to gain the valuable perspectives of residents in the basin.

Commissioners began their tour at the St. Mary Reservoir in southwestern Alberta. The reservoir, which was completed in the early 1950s, was developed with the purpose of serving irrigation needs. Commissioners received a technical briefing from Alberta Environment and Parks staff who operate and maintain the reservoir. Due to the proximity of the St. Mary Reservoir to the Kainai Nation’s reserve, Commissioners felt extremely fortunate to be joined by a member of the Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) on this portion of the tour.

Later in the evening, Commissioners met with members of the Milk River Watershed Council of Canada and learned about the history of the Milk River from several local irrigators.

The next day, Commissioners visited Lake Sherburne Reservoir in Montana, which is owned and managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. While learning about the reservoir, Commissioners were treated to a glimpse of the local wildlife as a grizzly bear roamed the reservoir at a safe distance. Commissioners also received a briefing from U.S. Accredited Officer John Kilpatrick on a hydrometric station operated by the U.S. Geological Survey Wyoming-Montana Water Science Center.

lake sherburne dam sign

Photos from the Lake Sherburne Reservoir. Credit: IJC

The group also visited the St. Mary Diversion Works and St. Mary siphons in Montana. They were delighted to be joined by several members of the Blackfeet Nation including tribal government officials.

Following that visit, the group had the opportunity to see Drop Structure No. 5 on the St. Mary Canal, which failed in May 2020. The St. Mary Diversion and Conveyance Facilities include a total of five drop structures, with No. 5 being the second longest in length and vertical drop. The structure was repaired and resumed conveying water in October 2020. While visiting the drop structure, the group learned more about collaborative efforts of Canada and the United States to repair the structure.

drop structure 5

Drop structure No. 5. Credit: Ethan Johnson

The following day, Commissioners spoke with members of the Milk River Watershed Council of Canada as they visited the Spite Ditch, located west of the Milk River. The ditch was a short-lived canal developed in the early 1900s and was an impetus for individuals from both sides of the border to come together and talk about the SMMR basin.

The group also learned more about Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) Milk River monitoring station from Canadian Study Manager Beau Hawkings. The station monitors the Milk River’s velocity, depth, temperature and other variables.

Later that day, Commissioners spent time with several generations of Canadian Milk River irrigators, including members of the study’s Public Advisory Group, who shared their perspectives on the effects of climate change on their family farms.  

al pietroniro eddy covariance tower

Al Pietroniro standing next to eddy covariance tower. Credit: IJC

While speaking with local irrigators, Commissioners received a briefing on ECCC’s eddy covariance towers from Canadian Accredited Officer Al Pietroniro. As of April 2022, two eddy covariance towers are installed in the Milk River basin in support of an International Watersheds Initiative (IWI) project. The goal of this project is to use a remote sensing tool to estimate near real-time evapotranspiration and ultimately improve estimates of irrigation consumption in the basin.

The group ended its tour at Writing-on-Stone / Áísínai'pi  Provincial Park, located in Blackfeet Nation traditional territory. While this was the first trip to the basin for some Study Board members, it is certainly not the last.

The study board had its first in-person board meeting in July, where members had the opportunity to meet with U.S. Milk River irrigators and visit the Fort Belknap Indian Community’s Aaniiih Nakoda College Water Center. The board will be scheduling public meetings in coming months and looks forward to meeting others in the basin.

st mary milk river study board members

Several SMMR Study Board members and affiliates. Credit: Jamie Kolodinsky

Diana Moczula
IJC

Diana Moczula is a junior policy analyst at the IJC’s Canadian Section office in Ottawa, Ontario.