Key Issues

The Milk River watershed is a small, semi-arid and trans-boundary watershed. Climate in the Milk River watershed is unique in comparison to the rest of Alberta. The semi-arid environment has influenced not only the soils, vegetation and wildlife that are found there, but it has also shaped the people, industry and economic growth in the region.


A survey was conducted during a public consultation process in 2005, prior to the formation of the MRWCC. The survey asked people to list the issues they believed were most pressing in the Milk River watershed. From the survey, a list of priorities was developed and goals and objectives were formed to address the main issues.
Since this initial input, the 2008 Milk River State of the Watershed Report was completed. A Technical Committee was struck to prioritize recommendations put forward in the SOW Report.
The MRWCC is also currently finalizing the Milk River Integrated Watershed Management Plan (IWMP), a guidance document and planning tool that provides management direction in the form of recommendations that will help guide the community’s activities for the benefit of future generations. The plan should be considered within broader regional and municipal planning initiatives and resource development strategies.
Similar issues and priorities were observed between the original survey in 2005, the priority recommendations found in the SOW, and the IWMP.  The following is a list of priority areas that are ranked closely in terms of importance to stakeholders.
In summary, the main concerns in the Milk River watershed are:
Priority Concerns:

  • Ability to secure a dependable water supply from a limited resource,
  • Limited economic development opportunities due, in part, to the limited, unsecure supply of water,
  • Augmentation of natural flow in the Milk River by the St. Mary River diversion (particularly the impacts associated with timing, duration and volume), and
  • Ability to maintain surface water and groundwater quality.

General Concerns:

  • Ability to maintain wildlife and biodiversity,
  • Potential loss/degradation of wetlands and riparian areas, and
  • Impact of various land uses (e.g. recreation, oil and gas, and agriculture) on watershed resources.

Issues that are also of interest are those related to:
The review of the terms and conditions of the Boundary Waters Treaty 1909. Readers using this document should be aware that a separate initiative is currently underway in which Alberta and Montana are working together to improve access to the shared water of the St. Mary and Milk rivers. The Montana-Alberta St. Mary and Milk Rivers Water Management Initiative aims to explore and evaluate options to improve access to the shared water of these two rivers.

South Saskatchewan Regional Plan (SSRP)

Drafted in October 2013 the SSRP includes the Milk River watershed within the scope of its planning area. Concerns were raised by landowners, agricultural producers, leaseholders and municipalities across southern Alberta in response to the plan. The main concerns arising from the draft SSRP that were common within the Milk River watershed community and that warrant further discussion and direction within the Milk River IWMP are:

1. Local concern regarding how the provisions of the Alberta Land Stewardship Act could have detrimental impacts on landowner’s property rights.
2. The economic implications associated with preserving native grasslands and biodiversity (i.e., who pays), and
3. Property rights implications associated with preserving native grasslands and biodiversity.

The Milk River watershed is fortunate to contain large contiguous tracts of native grassland, a large variety of upland species and unique fish populations that tend to be at the northern extent of their ecological range within the Milk River watershed. High biodiversity is, in part, a product of the high percentage of Public Land maintained in the watershed and good stewardship on the part of landowners and leaseholders. While biodiversity is highly valued in the watershed, it should not be managed at the expense of people’s ability to make a living within the watershed or without respect for individual property rights. While biodiversity is strongly valued within the Milk River community, the question of who will pay for biodiversity was brought forward a number of times throughout this planning process. While economic growth and prosperity are experienced in other parts of Alberta, communities in the Milk River watershed struggle to maintain and increase population and services (e.g., hospitals, schools). A balance between biodiversity and the well-being of the agricultural industry, and other sectors of the regional economy, is being sought.

Water Supply and Management

The water in the Milk River comes from snow-melt in the headwaters, inflows from tributaries and precipitation runoff throughout the watershed. Snow-melt in the headwaters accounts for between 50% and 80% of the water in the river. Precipitation runoff accounts for the remaining 50% to 20% of the water in the river. In addition to the natural flows, the water in the Milk River is augmented by an inter-basin transfer of water from the St. Mary River. The St. Mary Canal, completed in 1917, carries water from the St. Mary River to the North Milk River, just before it flows into Canada. This inter-basin transfer allows the U.S.A. to use its share of the water in the St. Mary River system, which originates in the U.S.A., but flows into the South Saskatchewan River Basin. The canal usually operates from April to October, transferring from 17 to 21 cubic meters of water per second.

flags.jpgWater supply and management has always been a concern in the Milk River watershed. Water management dates back to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. The Treaty established the International Joint Commission (IJC), made up of members from both Canada and the United States, for the purpose of resolving disputes. In 1921, the IJC created the Order that outlines how water is apportioned (shared) and measured in the St. Mary and Milk Rivers.

During the irrigation season, the U.S.A. is entitled to three-quarters of the flow in the Milk River and Canada is entitled to one-quarter of the flow, up to 666 cfs. The U.S.A. is entitled to one quarter of the flow in the St. Mary River and Canada is entitled to three-quarters of the flow. In the non-irrigation season, the flows are divided equally for both rivers.

Water management discussion are still underway regarding the Milk River and St. Mary systems as the International Joint Commission reviews the 1921 Order with the support of a Task Force made up of three Alberta representatives and three Montana representatives. Recently, the Task Force developed recommendations for the IJC to consider in their review.

The Milk River Watershed Council Canada will strive to work closely with Montana and Saskatchewan in watershed management planning and land stewardship initiatives. The MRWCC would like to maintain good working relationships with watershed neighbours by creating a process and forum to address trans-boundary watershed concerns.

Real-time flow data for the Milk River can be viewed at the Water Survey of Canada.

Water Quality

One of the goals of the Milk River Watershed Council Canada is to gain a better understanding of water quality in the Milk River watershed by monitoring the river and its tributaries. Groundwater quality monitoring is also essential to understand the resource and how it influences human health. The MRWCC will promote quality domestic water supplies in the watershed and make information available to residents, agencies and industry living and working in the watershed.