Irrigation Leader
Photo of Fresno Dam on the Milk River
Interview

The State of the Milk River Project A Conversation With Montana Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney

Comparable irrigation projects on two sides of an international border can provide a study in contrasts. Examining the different programs, infrastructure, and policies of each government can provide insight into how to make optimal use of the resource in question. Montana’s Milk River Project and the St. Mary River Irrigation District in Alberta, Canada, are emblematic of this dichotomy.

The century-old Milk River Project originates in northern Montana, traverses southern Alberta, Canada, and then heads back into Montana, serving the Hi-Line communities along the northern border of the state. The St. Mary River Irrigation District diverts from three rivers in south-central Alberta and traverses the Canadian prairie east to Saskatchewan. Both projects irrigate thousands of acres across hundreds of miles of arid high plains. However, differing infrastructure investments over the years have led to significant differences in efficiencies and management for the respective projects.

This past August, the St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group sponsored a tour of the projects for Montanans interested in improving project infrastructure. Montana Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney recently toured the St. Mary Diversion on the Milk River Project and the St. Mary River Irrigation District and came away with lessons for how the project in his state can modernize. Lieutenant Governor Cooney sat down with Irrigation Leader’s senior writer, John Crotty, to discuss the challenges facing the Milk River Project, the different approaches to water management in the United States and in Canada, and the upgrades that must happen for the project to continue to meet the water needs of its users in the future.

John Crotty: What are your thoughts on your recent tour of the Milk River Project?

Lieutenant Governor Cooney: It really reinforced the importance of that project and the effect that it has on the Hi-Line area of Montana. The water from the Milk River Project is vital for municipalities surrounding the area as well as agriculture and even recreational users. The system works amazingly well given that it is over 100 years old. The canal system has been the backbone of the entire region. Despite its successes, however, we have done a poor job of maintaining and modernizing the project since it was built. There must be a focus on taking the steps needed to upgrade the system and ensure its long-term future.

John Crotty: What did you see during the tour that speaks to those issues?

Lieutenant Governor Cooney: At its core, the project is a canal system that runs well but has many components that require constant upkeep. Issues like leakage, seepage, and evaporation all keep the Milk River Project from being as efficient as it could be. If the system and its management were modernized, we could make much better use of the limited water resources the canal provides. For example, the practice of allowing cattle to stand in the canal jams up the system, adds more steps to making the water suitable for irrigation or human consumption, and accelerates the deterioration of many of the system’s components. The Milk River Project is a prime example of the high-quality infrastructure American ingenuity can produce but also of the consequences that come from lack of maintenance or modernization of that infrastructure. There are a number of structural and procedural reforms that could be enacted to make the Milk River Project more efficient and usable for the long term.

John Crotty: After touring the St. Mary Diversion in Montana, you drove up to Lethbridge, Alberta. What similarities and differences did you notice between the American and Canadian projects?

Lieutenant Governor Cooney: The differences between the two sides of the border are quite stark. Southern Alberta is the breadbasket of Canada, and an incredible diversity of crops are grown there. Water is used efficiently, and the system itself is state of the art. The Canadian canals are fenced to prevent cattle or other livestock from getting into them.

People there have become much more aware of how to use water resources efficiently. Flood irrigation is almost nonexistent, and most farmers in Alberta use low-pressure hanging irrigation systems. Investing in those systems has allowed those farmers to be good at what they do while diversifying their crops. The local manufacturing and other support sectors have also seen growth as a result. All of that came about because of large investments made by the Canadian government beginning in the 1980s.

John Crotty: What would be your message to the people of Montana after participating in the fact-finding mission to Canada and seeing how things are done in Alberta?

Lieutenant Governor Cooney: I would urge decision-makers at the state and federal level to carefully examine what Alberta has done and work to emulate that success wherever possible. Although it is true we cannot be certain that making similar investments will produce identical results, adopting at least some of Canada’s successful policies could be beneficial.

Water is finite, and it always makes sense to use it wisely. A modern system would allow us to do that and would provide a more secure future for the surrounding area. Our farmers would also have more options to shape and manage their operations. Properly modernizing the Milk River Project would open doors in Montana that currently are closed and allow us to be more competitive in agricultural, manufacturing, municipal, and other economic sectors. Upgrading our facilities, canals, and management policies would be a critical step in the right direction.