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Milk River at risk of running dry as Montana crews continue work on burst water pipeline

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LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. -

Officials in Montana are warning that the Milk River is at risk of running dry this summer following a catastrophic failure on a pipeline near the Carway, Alta. border crossing on Monday morning.

According to the Milk River Project, an agency that delivers irrigation water to more than 120,000 acres of land in Canada the U.S., the St. Mary siphon on the St. Mary Canal outside Babb, Mont., burst at 9 a.m. on June 17.

Officials were monitoring a crack at the time of the blowout.

“There is always a risk that the Milk River could experience very low and no flows,” Ryan Newman, manager of Montana and area with the US Bureau of Reclamation, said in an interview with CTV News Thursday.

Newman says that risk could change if southern Alberta and northern Montana receive precipitation throughout the summer and into the fall to keep levels the same.

The 100-year-old siphon on the St Mary River northeast of Babb, Mont., erupted causing an increase in water down the St Mary River, but halting all water being diverted to the Milk River.

“We haven't had technical staff on-site just because the site is still unstable, very wet, banks are still sluffing, it's not safe to actually get in and put hands on it,” Newman said.

“With the warm weather we’re expecting this weekend and early next week, we're mobilizing folks to get up there and make some of these determinations.”

About 600 cubic feet per second of water flooded the surrounding area up to 15 metres deep.

"The canal was shut down prior to the failure, but the hillside, Hook's Hide-Away bar, hotel, and roping arena have all been significantly impacted with the water,” the Milk River Project said on Facebook.

Newman says crews have spent the past few days moving livestock, addressing the Hook’s Hide-Away and assessing the area.

Officials now say the pipe won't be replaced before the end of the year. A completion date for 2025 is still uncertain.

“We will not have water flowing by the end of the calendar year,” he said.

The siphon includes two separate pipes – both are damaged.

The Montana Bureau of Reclamation hopes to have one of the pipes replaced quickly.

“The question is, ‘Is there some way to provide some degree of water supply right now?’ and that would largely be in the form of repairing and restoring the south siphon,” Newman explained.

“If we could patch it together, it would be a very limited amount of water.”

On Tuesday, officials with the Milk River Watershed Council Canada told CTV News they estimated the river flow could drop to five cubic metres per second by Wednesday but, as of Thursday afternoon, the river is now flowing at 2.7 cubic metres per second.

The Town of Milk River is still gathering information and asking residents to reduce water consumption for the time being.

“The Town of Milk River will continue monitoring the situation and provide ongoing updates as the situation unfolds,” reads a notice on the town’s website.

The bureau received funding to replace the siphon about a year and a half ago.

Newman says design work is already underway which will help speed up the process.

“We are quite a ways down the road in that design effort, working with our partners and we're hopeful we can get that to a final design quite quickly in order to move forward with the replacement,” he said.

Newman says Fresno and Nelson reservoirs in northern Montana have enough water to supply farmers for up to 30 days.

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