Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Experts have been warning us for a long time that water shortages will set off even more deadly wars than famine does, and here in Valier, Montana, where irrigation means crops, we know that they are connected. We take these matters seriously. But we hardly expected the barrage of misspelled certified letters that the town council was sent by one individual.

Vitriolic personal attacks from this person demanded that the town stop selling water to the country folk around Valier. The seeming objection was that “excess” water shouldn’t be sold to outsiders while townspeople were rationed when it came to watering their lawns. (Every other day.) The real objection, I suspect, was that huge farm trucks lumber up the main street of Valier, beginning early in the morning, to buy ag chemicals stored at the airport where they are mixed with water from the city water hydrant. These trucks were so early and so loud, that the sleep of the complainant was disturbed. (I’m on the main street and soon learned to sleep through the commotion, but maybe this person is of a delicate sensibility and doesn’t sleep well.)

What struck me was the nearly instant leap to “us against them,” the townsfolk against the country folk, because it showed such an abysmal lack of understanding of what a town like Valier really is: the hub of the area where the people come to shop, to go to church, attend school, use the library, visit friends and esp. older relatives who have retired to town, the place for celebrations like Homesteader Days and blood drives and parades. The town and the country are two sides of the same thing. There is no divide between us and them, except that lately “outside” people have moved here to retire, seeing only a quiet safe place to live. As soon as they get situated, as is often the case, they begin wanting Valier to be like whatever place they left.

When I voted recently, one side of the City Hall was “my” town precinct but there was another set of tables on the other side. “Who are THOSE people?” I asked. “That’s the country precinct,” they told me, and the folks staffing the tables joked, “Oh, yes, they keep us hicks segregated!” But I noticed that they were in the same hall and voting through the same process. If their senior citizens came to the hall at noon for the subsidized meal, they would be served.

I went up the street to the little airport to get their side of the story. The father, who still owns the business, used to fly a crop duster plane, going out early in the morning in what sounded like a bumblebee. (Fields must be sprayed early in the morning, which is why the trucks some so early.) Maybe you saw him in the newspapers when Homeland Security decided he might be a terrorist -- later they apologized, but he gave up crop-dusting. Now the sons run the business, selling ag chemicals and spraying from a truck. To attract farmers to their ag chem business, they offer to let them load water from the city hydrant by the airport. This water is free to the farmers, but it’s paid for by the ag chem business so there’s no loss to the town. 3% of the town’s water is sold to farmers. Residential water is not metered.

The town has always provided water to the area farmers, some of them on land so dry that there is no well at all or it doesn’t have potable water. They must keep household water in an underground cistern. The previous truck-loading water-spout is on the south side of town but it was not designed high enough for some modern trucks and tanks. It takes a long time to load and sometimes the trucks are lined up and idling. The farmers have come to prefer the airport hydrant.

I’m EXTREMELY nervous about herbicides, pesticides, aviation fuels, and so on. A neighbor next to the airport has lost a series of pets to cancer, enough for the veterinarian to want to know where he lived. I’m assured that all the checks and restrictions and so on are currently up to standard, but there have been gaps.

The next little loop is that Pondera County and the FCC finally noticed that ag chemicals are being stored in the hangars and other airport buildings, which is against regulations. They have been removed, but are still present in the yard next door. The Town of Valier’s wells are very close. No one has tested for underground plumes of contaminating chemicals.

Returning to the subject of the sorehead sending confrontive letters to the Town Council on behalf of mysterious people he calls “Dissatisfied Citizens of Valier,” Googling his name reveals that he approaches everything in this same confrontive -- if not assaultive manner -- including his private life. His real residence and his job are in expensive Whitefish where he participates in rallies behind the Blue Moon Tavern. Some of us are quite familiar with the Blue Moon. Over there his pet issue is the government closing roads into the wilderness. He also complains that his little business, High Plains Fabricating (which appears to be him alone, welding), was squelched by Valier.

Some of the folks who move into Valier are fairly “high end” and their beef is lack of the amenities they expect. But this particular sorehead is more along the lines of thinking this is a place where he can do what he wants to do, like sleep in. He doesn’t want to come to meetings, doesn’t want to really live here, doesn’t want to be confused by the facts, etc. I'm sure he doesn't want us to notice his family life, but in Valier we all know when someone blows their nose.

While I was doing my “fact checking” around town, I was hanging out across the street from the Town Hall. Suddenly, pickups came whirling up and slammed stopped at the curb, the garage doors went up on the emergency vehicles and their engines began to turn over. In minutes they were headed out of town towards Cut Bank with the Deputy in close pursuit. We hope that the people in trouble were “not our people,” but there’s no question that the people in those vehicles -- all volunteers except the Deputy -- will do their very best to help whoever it is. If the victims are confrontive and want to fight about it, well, that’s just part of their trouble and it will be coped with, however it’s necessary. If they can stay in touch with reality, it will help a lot.

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