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Alberta’s border communities fear water shortage after Milk River collapse in U.S.

Alberta’s border communities fear water shortage after Milk River collapse in U.S.
WATCH: A potential water shortage is on the horizon for Alberta’s southern communities after a concrete drop structure that usually channels water from the United States across the border collapsed on Sunday. As Emily Olsen reports, both Milk River and Coutts officials hope this will help them advocate for better reservoirs on this side of the border.

Following May long weekend, communities just north of the United States border will have to focus on conserving their water use.

READ MORE: Businesses in Coutts, Alta., react to extension of Canada-U.S. border closure

“We are very dependent on a system that was built in the 1900s in Montana to get a consistent source of water to the Milk River,” Coutts Mayor Jim Willet said on Friday.

That system ultimately failed on Sunday when the final drop that funnels water from St. Mary’s River in Montana to Milk River in Alberta collapsed.

A concrete drop structure that usually channels water from the United States across the border collapsed on Sunday.
A concrete drop structure that usually channels water from the United States across the border collapsed on Sunday. Courtesy: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

“This is a lifeline for our communities,” said Tim Romanow with the Milk River Watershed Council of Canada.

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“It really provides between 80 and 90 per cent of the summer river water flow.”

Romanow said the system was a ticking time bomb.

“It’s incredible engineering for its time, considering it was engineered at the time of the Titanic, literally,” Romanow said.

With residents, farmers, tourists and some endangered species relying on consistent water flow through the Milk River, the repairs can’t come soon enough.

“There have been discussions for probably longer than I’ve been on this earth for putting a reservoir somewhere on the Milk River,” Willet said.

Willett said the hope is that this will push the importance of a reservoir so that when Montana and Alberta trade off on water use each year as per a seasonal agreement, more can be saved for emergencies.

“Because we have no offsite water storage, we watch our percentage of the water flow by every spring,” explained Milk River Mayor Peggy Losey.

As it stands, the water the communities have saved is limited.

“About three months storage is what we have,” Losey said on Friday. 

“You can go without a lot of things but you can’t go without water for very long.”

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Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, those north of the border can’t make the trip across to help rebuild.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Montana that oversees the water system said the recent rainfall hasn’t made accessing the remote site for inspection easy.

“Hopefully, some creative solutions come out of this situation,” Romanow said.

“For the foreseeable future, for the next couple of months, this is going to be a major challenge.”

READ MORE: Village of Coutts expected to feel impact of new Canada-U.S. border restrictions due to COVID-19

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said it is inspecting the site and should have a better timeline on repair or replacement in the next month or two.