Sunday, April 5, 2015

A couple of older men showed up at the last town council meeting, asking what the council was doing in the way of researching and planning to meet the constant need for water restrictions, since the town has by now blundered through half-a-dozen years of drought by saying, “Next year.” The results blossomed at this council meeting: some concrete efforts at research.

First, Roger the Water Man and Jackie the Clerk had designed and sent out a rather extensive questionnaire to every town they could think of that had similar size and situation: Belt (617 pop.), Big Sandy (656 pop.), Chester (818 pop.), Choteau (1,758 pop.), Circle (577 pop.), Conrad (2,638 pop and our county seat), Fairfield (641 pop.), Fort Benton (1,506 pop.) and Sunburst (362 pop.). The “everybody else does it” argument fell into the ditch on all sides. Big Sandy is in the lamentable position of drilling a new well that found no water. Circle found water at 1,450 feet. Belt and Valier are the only towns doing twice a year disinfection. The others do full-time.

Valier’s average yearly water use per capita is 96,840. (Based on a ten year average.) Compare with 218,880; 88,200; 41,760; 43,560; 60,480; 113,760; 83,520; 149,040. I spent a little time with Corky Evans considering what the variables might be and we thought of quite a few: size of households, extent of yards and gardens, etc. It appears that water meters are a good influence.

Depth of wells in Valier is about 100 feet (that’s the depth of the pumps). Other town’s wells are at 640/620 ft; 28 ft (Choteau, which is close to the mountains); 1,450ft. ; 28 to 60ft.; 45ft.; 350/350/187/180 ft. The seven wells at Fairfield, which are the ones from 28 to 60 ft. are shallow enough to have raised concerns about contamination from nitrate fertilizer and herbicide. Everyone but Belt and Fairfield is selling water to dryland farmers around them, which was once considered a way to pay for the system but is now beginning to look like a drain. Still, the existence of small ag towns is dependent on the surrounding ranchers and farmers. When they suffer, the town suffers.

If enough small ag towns suffer, the whole state suffers. Therefore, the state, through the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Ground-Water Assessment Program, created in 1991, collects data and posts it online constantly. “Mousing around” (more subversive than “horsing around”) reveals all sorts of things. For instance, we appear to be tapping into the Virgelle sandstone formation, about 200 feet deep and probably connected somehow to the same aquifer as the one feeding Giant Springs in Great Falls. Zowie!

Kurt Christiaens, Councilman, was inspired to reach out to these guys, who sent us Marvin R. Miller, Assistant Director for Contracts and Grants, Senior Research Hydrogeologist. He reminded me of my boss in Portland, the soils engineer at the head of the Site Development team of the Portland Bureau of Housing. Quiet, thoughtful fellow with a strong moral spine. Brunette, blue-eyed, handsome but not flirtatious. Geologists are more science-conscious than engineers. Miller (If I have the right fellow in mind) is a midwesterner. He didn’t recognize “Pondera,” the name of the county, as a corrupted version of “Pend d’oreille” -- French for earring, which is also the name of a tribe.

But he sat with interested parties patiently sorting out which well was where and swapped studies with Roger and Leo, the city workers who had raided their own files. Then they went out to take a GPS reading on each location, which ought to help match up likely aquifers that have GPS readings recorded in Butte. No deductions yet. There is some idea that the old wells might be plugged by biomass or silt and that lifting out the pumps, “blowing” them out or maybe drilling a bit deeper, might be low-cost ways of solving the problems. (This does not please pipeline fans.)

Now I’m going on a short side-bar excursion. I have two points to make. The first is the more important to the community. Like AIMster political Indians, citizens of Valier who are upset with the status quo tend to look for a human being to attack. They have been so unreasonable over irresolvable problems, ranging from national political quandaries like the economy to small complaints (usually about dusty streets or plugged up drainage), that no one wants to be on the council. There are no experienced older men willing to be called by outraged old women. The former handyman could hardly wait to leave town because HE took so much abuse over wallpaper that didn’t match or a remodeling that went $10 over the estimate. The two younger businessmen on the council grieve over the way people treat them -- “Why is it always us against them?” asked one.

I would suggest two reasons: one is that people feel so powerless (like Indians) and out of control that extremes seem justifed in hopes of jarring something loose. The other is that throwing a fit has become a part of the American character created somehow by child-raising practices that reward a child who raises hell and blames parents. (This has a lot to do with people not wanting to teach school anymore.)

The first time I saw grownups act like this was stark. It was a Unitarian General Assembly -- a religious annual meeting -- on a college campus. A guest in the cafeteria, a UU from back east, was so enraged by an error in the change he got that he threw change and tray of food on the floor. We thought maybe he had a brain tumor. Now, I doubt that anyone would be surprised. “Cafeteria rage.” We’d be relieved if no gun were involved.

Reaching out for information that is quantifiable and scientific is an excellent way to break up this game. Two factors interfere. One is the tendency to want to restore peace by papering over differences -- keep things vague (not on paper), just work it out as it happens, keep it quiet (secret), and discredit all complainers. Especially if one is financially involved in the decisions. The other is to turn on the hired help -- the two city employees.

In a town the size of Valier, no one can sneeze, have company, or neglect to mow the lawn without everyone knowing about it. And since many people around here do manual work with equipment, they have opinions about how long things should take, what they ought to cost, etc. etc. Any city employee has lots of kibbitzers. With a mayor who doesn’t act as a foreman, it’s hard for the employee to defend his or her self. By default, I see the clerk getting pressed into the role of foreman and monitor.

In the recent past our town water man attended water school, as he has for some years now in order to keep his certificate. (The survey showed that Belt currently has no certified water operator, a major problem since that can cut off subsidies, quite apart from water disasters.) Leo, the other employee, has been around a long time and has a lot of information acquired over the years, just from being there. This means that both employees are repositories of information with considerable value to the Town. Replacing them with new hires would lose that.

On the other hand, both men have been plagued with illness. Knobs at joints, tiredness, “flu.” In my paranoia I suspect chemicals. People here are very cavalier about spraying for weeds, for pests, etc. I don’t know how much we have been thinking about the job-related health issues these men and the summer high school help might develop. I don’t know of studies about cancer and neuropathy rates among small town residents, but I’m going to begin “mousing around.” In Saskatchewan all such information is the property of the province and kept secret.

In the past fifty years there has been a steady effort to persuade people to learn and use communication techniques, statistical methods, personal relationship principles, good citizenship, and so on. Now and then someone comes through but too many of us lean on our oars. Me included. Now I’m going to go clean out my gutters. It’s supposed to rain and snow in a few days, though it’s a brilliant clear day and politicians are out roaming the town.

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