Friday, May 06, 2011


The “legs” for the water tower “bubble” tank are going up.  The pieces of the bottom half of the tank are on the ground.  Our elevator with its attendant railroad spur is at the horizon to the right.  
Two industrial revolution contributions to the prairie landscape --  more engineering than architecture -- are the grain elevator and the water tower.  In fact, they both operate on the same principle -- to exploit gravity to move a substance easily.  Inside the grain elevator a conveyor belt of little shovels lifts the grains to pour into internal vertical sections that can be unloaded from the bottom.  Grain pours just like water.  Inside the water tower a pump fills a tank so that it will flow down through the underground pipes of the town.  
In many of the small towns around here (Heart Butte, Cut Bank, Shelby, Conrad) there is a hill close enough to town for a big tank on the ground instead of the familiar long legs.  (Once someone discovered how to unscrew the giant nuts that held one Heart Butte tank onto its concrete pad, but luckily it was discovered before it tipped over and rolled down the hill onto houses.)   Valier is adding a second watertower on legs.  Not so much because the population has gone up as because stronger state standards for water systems have come into play.
Wikipedia shows many versions of water towers from all over the planet, some of them jokes (a giant peach, a giant corn on the cob) and some where attempts have been made to disguise them by using elegant architecture designs, like the famous “castle” in downtown Chicago that gives its name to a glitzy shopping complex.  Watertowers are important navigation aids for small planes used by ranchers who navigate by landmarks instead of GPS devices to tell where they are.  Most towns paint the name of the town on their tank.   Valier wants to paint purple paw prints on theirs because purple is the school color and the panther is their emblem.  This will cost thousands of dollars, an amount that they plan to raise by subscription.  
Maybe they should save their money.  They say that Montana has not been hit so hard by the recession but you wouldn’t know it from the newspapers.  Brady, a small town about the same distance south of Conrad as Valier is north of Conrad (the distance a farmer could get a horse-drawn wagon to market and back in one day), has just been denied a state grant they had asked for to upgrade their water system.  This wouldn’t be so necessary if the state hadn’t also just required them to upgrade because of water quality issues.  Valier is caught in somewhat the same pincers.  
Valier’s assortment of four wells seemed to need a new one, so the drill rig set up on the west side of town, but twice only drew water with too much iron or sulphur to be potable.  The third attempt was a block away from me.  That one didn’t work either.  When one says “well,” do not imagine a hand-dug shaft with a stone wall around it -- only a pipe.  At 200 ft and deeper there was not enough good water.  A special meeting was called to decide whether to try a fourth time.  This time the mayor decided to hire a dowser, a water witch.  The strategy was to identify an area according to the hydrogeologist and then get the dowser to suggest the specific spot to drill and drive in pipe.  They are out there now, only a couple of blocks from the new water tower, near to the best of the old wells, which shows signs of exhaustion.  It is not clear whether there is really enough money to pay for this fourth try, so there was considerable reflection and doubt.  The community is not participating in any of this.  They interpret the town as something that is done to them, not something they do, though they will scream if taxes and water bills go up.  On the other hand, there are local historians and hobby geologists who say there is a ledge of rock underground that directs water in a certain way.  They were not consulted.
It is ironic to struggle with this water issue when Lake Francis is in plain view along the edge of town, just south of the airport which has itself become an object of controversy because some people want to subdivide the land and build “luxury homes.”  (Our sanitary lagoon is beyond maxed out, so that would mean building a second one.)  It is a small grass runway, not much more than a field, with an open shed for a hangar.  Just south of it, between the town and the lake, is what is called “the recreation area” which is RV parking as close together as any trailer park.  There can be no permanent construction for a margin around the lake in order to protect the quality of the water, which is the property of the Pondera Canal Company and the source of water for Conrad, an arrangement that dates back to the founding Brothers Conrad who once ranched on this land.  Anyway, there is talk of raising the level of the lake enough to drown both campground and airport.  In the meantime, drought often creates a wide baked-mud “beach” around the water.  The water level is not controlled by global warming but by the Pondera Canal Company.  At present the nesting island that was such a controversy is at least half submerged since this is a high water year.

The sections of the "bubble" part of the tower 
and the central water pipe that will be enclosed by the structure.

The supporting "legs" are up now and the top dome of the tank is assembled on the ground.

Getting back to the water tower, the sections for it were brought to town in huge shards and laid out on the ground for assembly.  The workmen are specialists with heliarc welders run by a bank of generators on a truck.  When I walked into the area to take photos, one of the welders, startled, ambled over to advise me to leave since I had no hard hat.  In a soft down-south voice he advised urgently,  “You’ve got to go, Ma’am, or it will make really big trouble with OSHA.  It’ll be hard on us.”  I went.  He reminded me of the young Scott Glenn in the movies.  Handsome but -- you wouldn’t want to argue with him.  There was a row of rings in his ear.  When I remarked about his accent, people told me the crew indeed came from the South and were specialists, traveling the country.   
The real “hydraulics” we are struggling with is population hydraulics as people move around in response to opportunity and disaster.  Darrell Kipp used to speak of “the hydraulics of the plains tribes” as they pushed back and forth against each other.  Nothing has changed except for the paper trails. 

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