Monday, November 18, 2013


Valier is a town that the last census shows is 509 people, 234 households, and 138 families.  Many of the families are interrelated and date back to 1913, when a Belgian priest, cooperating with the Great Northern Railroad and the Conrad Brothers irrigation project, came as a village group for the economic advantage of all concerned.  Before that the land had been the Conrad Brothers’ Block Hanging 7 ranch, capitalizing on open range, first sheep, then cattle. 

About a fifth of the population is under 18 and still at home.  Another fifth are 18 to 24 and fewer than a fifth between 25 and 44.  Almost a third are 45 to 64 and a little more than a fifth are over 65.  I doubt that the transient workers who bunk in Valier were counted by anyone, though the popular idea (no count available) is that rentals are impossible to find and that we’re missing out on a boom.  I see empty houses, but they aren’t necessarily fancy.

The school claims that it can’t find teachers because there is no housing for them.  They mean no housing that teachers would accept, because they expect what they would find near a city.  The move throughout Montana is to school-owned teacher housing, like that in Heart Butte.  At the same time the once-usual arrangement for a minister to live in a church-owned home has fallen out of favor because taking advantage of the housing bubble by accruing equity was one way for a minister to improve his or her fortunes.  This is no longer true, but most churches have sold their parsonages.  Anyway, these days small town ministers find they can only be supported by a cooperating group of congregations in various towns, so how would they know where the parsonage should be?  Would it be seen as an advantage or a burden to the hosting town’s congregation?  Ministers are now much less invested in providing a force for good in the whole community -- there just isn’t enough time or gas money.  No priest or pastor lives in Valier.  (I am retired.)

But the biggest problem of all these high prairie shrinking towns is infrastructure, most crucially the water system, the basic stems of which were installed as long as a hundred years ago when the technology for sewer lines was basically asphalt-saturated cardboard.  Legally required standards for sewage lagoons are rising and remedies are expensive.  Towns must send elaborate samples for testing and if they do not, or if the samples show below standard results, there are penalties.  

e. coli

Valier’s lagoon, which was recently expanded in hopes of a growing population, has been failing the tests.  The diagnosis was that the water was freezing (temps go to sub-zero), so the “bugs” weren’t digesting microbes.  The solution suggested is floating covers ballasted with tubes of sand and buoyant with forced aeration.  The state has given the town an exemption from penalties based on the intention to do this.  Of course, it will have to be paid for.  The present Mayor and town council have been pretty resourceful about getting grants and loans, but ag-acculturated people here are wary both about any debt and about any government body.

In fact, this is dry land farming country where some farmers have no wells, so must truck water from the city source.  They pay city rates for the water but there is no cost to the town for trucking it home to their cisterns.  The first sound I hear on waking is heavy trucks with water tanks going up my street to a hydrant.  The town’s wells have been low in recent years, so -- after some difficulty -- another well and a new water tower were added at considerable cost.  This was in part a response to an engineering firm that made a pitch for the necessity.  The clinching argument was that if the school were to catch on fire there was not enough water in the system to put it out. (A few years ago some local high school girls pushed a dumpster against the school wall and set it ablaze.) The new Mayor Elect claimed that the construction of the water tower was so deficient that it would fall over, but he was merely a citizen then.  (Of course, he will continue to be merely a citizen until January 1, 2014.)

The rising town fees, combined with the contentious national atmosphere, have put our teakettles a-boil.  To the rescue came the Mayor Elect, whose platform was to throw the criminals and exploiters out, though he had no proof that anyone was either committing crimes or taking advantage.  (IMHO, if he was saying this he is vulnerable to lawsuits for libel, but the idea plays well.)  When this man first came to Valier from Conrad, his idea of how to solve the water shortage was to refuse to sell water to any ranch, farm, ag business or rural housing.  No more trucking water.  He never grasped the economic dimension.  Of course, none of those people vote in city elections.  In an atmosphere where people are urged to plant xeriscaped yards and watering lawns must be rationed, he has built an elaborate garden with automatic sprinklers around his new house.

The basis of a successful economy in Valier is profitable farming and ranching.  Because of the dependence on irrigation, the foundational business in town is the Pondera Canal Company, which built, owns and maintains Lake Frances, the canals it feeds, and Swift Dam, which is the source of the water.  Swift Dam is on the Blackfeet reservation but in Pondera County, not Glacier.  Now you know why Heart Butte is on the rez but in Pondera County -- it is so that Swift Dam will be in Pondera County because of the Pondera Canal Company.

This structure gave way on June 10, 1964, after heavy rains caused flooding on Birch Creek. The dam collapsed, sending a 30-foot wall of water down the creekbed, killing dozens.  (Several people have become interested in this story.)  Swift Dam was never properly authorized when built by the Conrad Brothers, who were notorious for their cavalier attitude towards regulations, particularly on the reservation.  The rumor at the time the dam broke was that it because of poor maintenance, but I never heard about lawsuits for the many deaths and damage.  The Curry family, which owns several Valier businesses -- including the sole gas station -- but lives outside the city limits, has sued the Canal company in Water Court.  I don’t think there’s a decision yet. 

Ice Fishing Shacks on Frozen Lake Francis

Migratory Birds on Lake Frances in Fall

Water use rights are granted by “first use” and upstream location.  Irrigation of the reservation land contiguous with Pondera County has never been allotted according to the law because no one on the rez side was using it.  Now, however, with advent of pivot post irrigation, it is wanted and needed on that side.  This is such a hot issue that it could easily end up triggering violence.  Clearly, when all is sorted out, the Pondera Canal Company probably will be entitled to much less water, which means that some farming will be much less profitable and some will go bankrupt. 

Valier's water comes from wells, not the lake.  Valier is a small boat in this storm surge and the victims, as usual, will be the people quietly living here in a Fifties sort of illusion, hoping the fees don’t go up too much, working so hard and long that they have no time or energy to show up for town meetings, and constantly suspecting that all the corrupt political things they see on television are absolutely true and coming closer.  Many are aging or have health issues.

The Town Hall and Office.  
These trees have been removed because they were undermining the building,
 but it caused a firestorm of public protest.

The council will have decisions to make that involve more and bigger issues than ever before.  Delicate negotiations and a head for legal matters will be vital.  Luckily, the mayor has no vote and no power to do more than implement as directed by the council.  A town is a co-operative, with every voting member being responsible for outcomes, even legal liability.  Whatever the penalties, we will all pay them.  Yet the first reflex of most people is to pull back, gossip in an ineffective effort to find out what’s going on, and accuse individuals when it all goes wrong.  They obsess about what they understand: dust, potholes and chickens.  The rest is just too hard.

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