By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
An international commission's decision to examine how Milk River water is divided between Montana and Alberta could end up with a greater share of water for Montana, a state official said Tuesday.
"I'm very pleased," said Rich Moy, a bureau chief of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. "Hopefully we'll be able to get more water."
The International Joint Commission, created by treaty in 1909 to resolve water disputes between the United States and Canada, said Tuesday it is creating a task force to look at the administration of the apportionment of the Milk and St. Mary rivers.
Gov. Judy Martz had requested that the way the water in the St. Mary and Milk rivers is apportioned be re-examined. She sent a letter to the IJC saying Montana believes Canada receives a greater share of the water.
The 1909 treaty requires that the Milk and St. Mary rivers be treated as one river for apportionment and shared equally between the two countries. Montana maintains that an order issued by the IJC in 1921 gives Canada a greater share of the water.
Martz had wanted the commission to reconsider the 1921 order, and the commission decided not to do that.
Rather, the task force will look at procedures used to apportion that water - such as when measurements are taken, when irrigation seasons start, and how surpluses and deficits are dealt with - and see if they can be modified to better meet the needs of users in both countries, said Frank Bevacqua, IJC information officer in Washington, D.C.
"We wanted to see how far this approach would take us," Bevacqua said.
The decision was made after the IJC held public meetings in Montana and Canada last summer and collected public comment.
The task force will submit an interim report by March 28 and a final report by June 30.
Moy said Montana had hoped that the 1921 order would be reviewed, but that looking at the administration of the order also could result in Montana getting more water.
The order specifies that during irrigation season, Canada receives three-fourths of the natural flow of the St. Mary River, and the United States receives three-fourths of the natural flow of the Milk River.
Because the St. Mary is a faster-flowing stream with a more consistent flow, that results in Canada receiving more water than Montana, the state said.
Getting the 1921 order changed would be difficult, Moy said, because the Canadians do not want to change the way the rivers are split. The commission consists of three American and three Canadian commissioners.
"We know we have an uphill fight," he said.
Moy said the review of the administration could resolve problems that keep Montana from getting all of the water it is entitled to.
For example, it could allow Montana to use the full capacity of the St. Mary Diversion, which funnels St. Mary River water to the Milk, more often, he said. The diversion, built early last century to provide irrigation water to the Milk River, can transfer up to 650 cubic feet of water per second, but has to be limited to 450 cfs at times.
The task force will be composed of an equal number of Canadians and Americans. It is directed to come to a consensus on the issues it examines, rather than working in a majority-rule fashion.
The IJC will instruct the task force to include public comment in its process.
Bevacqua said that if either nation is not satisfied with the work of the task force, the IJC could take additional action.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he added.