Front to back: landing strip, Lake Francis, Rocky Mountains, impending moisture
At the Valier Town Council meeting this week a presentation was made by Dan Kramer, a circuit rider for the Montana Rural Water Systems, Inc. This was a good thing, since water is “the new oil,” meaning that it suddenly has taken a jump in value. In fact, Lake Francis, which is adjacent to town, was just now supplying water to “scooper planes” dousing the fire west of Heart Butte. In recent tests this water proved free of invasive mussels, which was good for boaters and fishermen.
Lake Francis is the impoundment for the Pondera Canal Company’s irrigation system, which starts by Swift Dam, the most upstream impoundment of water from the Rocky Mountains. Wildfire reached the dam, requiring the evacuation of the caretaker and the closest ranchers, who are on the Blackfeet Reservation. The dam was originally built with the cooperation and compensation of the Indian Agent of the time. It was on the allotment of his wife, an enrolled Blackfeet woman.
“Swift Dam” is also the title of a book by Sid Gustafson wherein it becomes a looming fate that eventually killed more than thirty people when it broke. The story is about the effect on the people who realize what such modern engineering feats can do, who are haunted by it, but helpless to stop industrialization of the wild land. And now that a new improved dam is installed, the new threat is a diminishing snowpack because of the greenhouse effect, and the growing political strength of the people who own the damsite — but more than that, are entitled to a proportion of the water. Ranching in the area can be dependent on irrigation from this dam.
The Town Council dealt with none of this because the town doesn’t get its vital water from Lake Frances. Rather it draws on a handful of wells under the town which are managed constantly by the two town employees. It is this management that is addressed by Montana Rural Water Systems, Inc. The business is a private nonprofit consortium of experienced people who run a business that supports and guides small town water managers. www.mrws.org/ They are experts in both incoming potable water and outgoing septic systems. Dan had spent the day with the town clerk looking at the constituents of the town.
The land under the town is taxed by the county, which then reapportions funds to the town. This was not addressed. The town is a kind of cooperative that pays for its infrastructure (water, sewer) with fees for service. Getting the services properly aligned with the cost for service was what Kramer was addressing. The land is divided into lots and each lot is charged according to its use, which is of surprising variety. Some of the uniqueness is because of once being a boom town when the dam was built.
Much of the town land is owned by Pondera County, including the little airport which is really only a grass landing strip with a shed for airplane shelter. Some of the land has never been developed and would be hard to develop because of its altitude (the flow of the pipes would have be augmented with pumps) or maybe other characteristics.
Some of the land was ceded to the county due to nonpayment of property taxes.
Lots owned by private citizens include:
A grain-bin "farm" with no water or sewer.
Lots where houses or businesses stood during historic boom times that are now empty but have pipes under them.
Lots that are empty but could be built on, maybe using pre-existing pipes.
Lots with houses that are standing empty and would need renovation for occupancy.
Lots with houses or business structures that should probably be demolished.
Lots tied up in legal situations, with owners who are in nursing homes or with dead owners whose estates have not been settled.
Since the lake makes some people think of Valier as a resort town, there are houses that are used as summer homes or vacation cabins. They do not want to pay for town services when they aren’t present. The converse is people who live on remote ranches but move to town during the school year for the sake of their children or town jobs.
Houses or lots that are owned as investments and which are dormant. Some of these are being acquired by a predatory investment group that buys property with delinquent taxes and sits on it to store wealth.
Some properties have liens on them because of unpaid fines or loans.
One property on the highway is not released from restriction due to contamination because of an historical service station with leaky underground storage.
One mantra that is often heard is that there are no rentals in Valier. The truth is probably that there are few rentals publicly available: people are very careful about renting their property in order to protect it from abuse. Some only rent to relatives. Access is word-of-mouth and it benefits them to represent a rental shortage.
Another “wish” is that there were some kind of supported housing for the elderly so they could stay here instead of going to facilities in adjoining counties where families would have to travel to visit often.
Because of the lake there are occasionally fantasies about wealthy people wanting to build prestige homes here. Realistically, professionals like teachers or engineers are used to more modern and larger homes than are already here. They expect more bathrooms, more appliances that use water in greater amounts, more lawn watering and even water features like fountains or ponds. This affects local hiring.
Town water is extended to the grain elevator just outside the boundary. A ring of homes and ag uses are just outside the town, using wells and septic tanks. They would not necessarily be pleased by moving the boundary.
Because Kramer and the town clerk spent an afternoon sorting these categories and thinking about what they mean in terms of costs and fees, the town expects to post the numbers they worked out on the town’s website. The upshot of it is that we are barely paying our way. The shocking news that we will have to remove the sludge from the bottom of the sewage lagoons at considerable cost will throw us behind the eightball. There is some idea that we might be able to sell the sludge as fertilizer.
The town meets its bills in part by selling water to dry farms that have no wells but depend on filling cisterns with potable water from the town supply. If we worked out the cost of water and sewer to the residents so that it came out even, we could put that extra income into a rainy day fund for surprises like that sludge problem, which are often mandated by state or federal agencies. Locals despise those authorities, but nearby towns are finding out that defying them leads to disastrous penalties. They are outside our control. Thus the value of this independent nonprofit as guides.
Kramer’s approach to bookkeeping is practical and useful, but most townspeople are blind to it. Luckily, our current mayor has had training as an accountant and has been keeping a close eye on the figures. Some townspeople think that if they are ferocious enough in their sporadic attacks on the council and mayor, they can stave off all these pesky costs and conditions. They're wasting energy and preventing progress.
Some towns are now imposing fees in the thousands of dollars for new building that will need infrastructure, esp. the extension of pipes to the properties and the expansion of treatment and lagoons to handle more people. Since there are people who make money from building, as well as the people who have been planning to build on their lots, maybe for retirement money, this is the equivalent of a stock market crash. They experience it as a “taking” though it’s only potential.
Because so many businesses have collapsed in town, even the ones that draw on the surrounding economy of ranchers like car dealers or laundromats, Valier is becoming a “bedroom community” where people come home to sleep. This would be a better situation if the winters weren’t so severe. Maintaining a car that will cope with blizzards and ice means extra cost for living here and working elsewhere.
An obvious salvation might be internet-based businesses, but so far the residents don’t have the expertise and therefore have not demanded good service. It’s coming.