Friday, April 11, 2008


In a small prairie town the level of infrastructure improvement is not necessarily representable in statistics. For instance, a recent accomplishment of the town of Valier water-master was finally potting the muskrat that had taken up residence in the sewage lagoon and was busy tunneling through the retaining dikes.

A shrinking community faces problems invisible to outsiders. Consider that the Valier churches, an important infrastructure, struggle to meet their expenses. The Catholics and Lutherans have given up their resident pastors, now depending on visiting clergy already stretched thin or on volunteer leaders from within the congregation. The Methodists, when I came, had a pastor who put much energy into the community in subtle ways, like attending the Senior Citizen lunches to energize the conversation and stay aware of personal situations. He overachieved and was moved to a livelier and more populous community. When he left, I considered taking on this little volunteer “ministry” (I spent ten years in the clergy) but found that even those subsidized lunches are too expensive for me and anyway not planned for a low-carb Diabetes 2 diet like mine, in spite of the number of people in town who share this condition.

Originally, when I retired here to follow my lifelong desire to write, there was a laundromat, a car dealer, two grocery stores, and two service stations. The laundromat and the car dealer are gone, one grocery store is now a custom cutter meat store and one service station is private while the other is a “Quick Stop.” At one point the bread wholesaler announced he would quit delivering to the remaining grocery store because it wasn’t worth the long drive to sell a few loaves. When we cast around for solutions, it became clear that though many of us could use the extra money and some had the necessary skills, no one would be able to bake and sell from home because of stringent state rules about food service.

But this is part of a long trend. There are no pay phones, because “everyone has cell phones.” There is no bus because “everyone” has cars. The TV transmitter is not maintained because “everyone” has gone to satellite discs. Many things must be done over the Internet because “everyone” has computers. But this is not true: there is always a minority that does NOT have the latest technological improvements.

It is assumed that the safety dimension of phones or the comfort of television chatter is replaced in small towns by close community ties and neighbors who, as the joke goes, know when you change toothpaste brands. This isn’t always true. When the proportion of oldsters is high, they can’t always look out for each other -- call for help when an old lady falls on the ice or know if flu has kept someone in bed. Anyway, the women and younger people who used to shovel walks and carry casseroles are now holding down jobs, most likely in towns thirty miles away.

Ironically, Valier housing has recently had a bit of a boom from at least three sources: displaced low income folks from the Flathead Valley where property values and population density have skyrocketed, reservation families looking for good schools and neighborhood safety, and law officers attached to homeland security, the Shelby prison, or county sheriff’s office. From its earliest existence Valier has believed that some day there would be a boom that brought in respectable prosperous people. But there remains quite a contrast between people like me in my ancient decrepit house and the homes of professionals like the architects at Swank Construction, one of the most successful businesses in the state.

In the past, water bills were paid by making a total of the system costs and then simply divving them up among the consumers. At one time there were meters, but in a time when everyone was at about the same level of use, they were considered unnecessary. Today, some people are supplying three bathrooms, a hot tub, an underground lawn irrigation system (and lawns are bigger than they used to be), a dishwasher, and a clothes washer (running constantly to keep up with kids). This is quite different from my own lack of dishwasher or clothes washer, one bathroom with a shower rather than a tub, and “xeriscaped” yard. I wash clothes at a laundromat thirty miles away, trying to combine the trip with a grocery buy -- not good for the Valier economy. But I pay the same water bill as everyone else who has my inlet pipe size. It appears that re-installation of water meters has been put off so long that they are incredibly expensive, but the advantage is that they can be “read” from the street easily and quickly, which is not an advantage to the populace, but easier for town employees.

What is slowly being revealed is that over the years the water services themselves have become tangled. Persons building “granny houses” ran the water lines off their own houses so only one service would be registered. Persons installed lawn or garden watering systems on the same line as a neighbor’s waterline. One of my neighbors has two structures on one water line but has to pay for two services. Struggle and hard feelings are inevitable. There are constant accusations of careless abuse and undetected leaks.

But the prospect of having to pay as much as $2,000 per household, as rumor suggests, evokes pure raw fear in many of us. In 1999 I could pay my bills and have a little left over. Now I come up fifty dollars short every month and have to juggle bills until I find a windfall or sell something.

This town was founded by dryland farmers, mostly Belgian families from the same area in Europe so they had pre-existing ties and standards. Now we have many kinds of people in town who do not know each other or share values. Some of those dryland farmers have had the advantage of irrigation, which is now being hit by both drought and the necessity of legalizing and codifying water rights. These folks must get their household water through the Valier water system and though it only accounts for 2 or 3% of total use, it is constantly questioned. The airport business in ag chemicals diluted by the city water system is also challenged. The feeling is that something somewhere must be responsible, but surely not global warming.

Dissension and distrust are as damaging to the functioning of a community as -- well, I’ll say “water shortage.” But no amount of meetings, surveys, and statistics by engineers and interface contractors can magically smooth the way. The least we can do is appeal for mitigation for what looks to be a costly process.

No comments: