Industrial level irrigation is crucial to the vast grain supply of the West. People know little about the history and implications. To keep the subject manageable, I'm focusing on Valier, MT, headquarters of the Pondera Canal Company and its history.
THIS BLOG IS NOT AN ORGANIZED NARRATIVE BUT A STORAGE SPACE FOR RESEARCH AND THOUGHT. NOT MANY IMAGES. COMMENTS WELCOME.
Sunday, October 18, 2015
WATER RUNS DOWNHILL
A desirable location for an industrial-scale irrigation development must include:
1. An inclined plane so no pumps are needed.
2. Flat land that will be fertile if irrigated, not too far away from the source of water, and not needing to be cleared of trees, only plowed.
3. A source of water in the form of collecting it from the sky in the form of snowpack which will hold it in the geological “water tank” to extend the period of melting.
4. Geological locations for gates and reservoirs -- narrow places and bowls to hold liquid water.
5. Natural waterways that can be extended with canal systems.
6. Willingness for people to work together for projects too big for individuals.
7. Government regulators to guard the greater good and keep order. This includes populating parts of the country in ways that will encourage production and shipping product, particularly food supplies or natural resources like oil or coal.
8. A source of people willing to work hard for future rewards.
The Foley report, written by a researching lawyer to defend the interests of the Blackfeet reservation, outlines adventures with irrigation projects on the rez. They were constantly blocked or neglected. The northern waterway of Milk River was diverted south to supply American-side off-rez ranchers now called the “High Line” after the Great Northern railway route. If this water were shut off, the High-Line communities would reconfigure drastically because the population would have to leave. They are already shrinking.
At the south edge of the rez, the Marias watershed, which was on the rez, was diverted into the Conrad brothers irrigation project with the cooperation of “Major” Steele (he was not military -- it was an honorific) the only Indian agent to serve twice, and the original Kipp, a Mandan/Hidatsa man of enormous energy and intelligence.
When I look north along the Rockies, either in fall or spring, I often see that there is snowpack on the mountains that are defined as Glacier National Park. The geologists say that this area was formed by the action of the continental glaciers, but what we’re seeing now is the melting of the remnant glaciers in the park. (Al Gore stands as a marker in today’s climatologist’s videos so we’ll look at what has been recorded ever since photography was invented. Actually that technology -- machine-recorded images -- developed about the same time as the confining of the indigenous people, replacing them on the land with Europeans displaced by Civil War or pending war or famine in Europe.)
Why would the mountains, say, south of Heart Butte at about the same general area as the mountain called “Major Steele’s Back”, be about the northern line of heavy snowpack in the watershed that feeds Swift Dam? Was it really “Major Steele’s Backlot” for his profitable crop of melt water in Spring?
Such questions are cross-disciplinary: geology, sociology, the development of nations, the transition from improvised frontier law-free times into highly complex laws and regulations enforced at many levels and in many hierarchies. Some of the science reaches back by aeons and millennia and projects into the anthropocene with terrifying implications that are yet ambiguous -- very chancy indeed.
Let’s take a different angle. “The Rocky Mountain Front is the easternmost portion of the Lewis Range which rises abruptly 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 m) above the Great Plains.” When the land was crumpled by pressure on the West coast, it broke in different ways. Much of it was “uplifted,” like a broken layer cake, creating the great stone ramparts right out of “Game of Thrones” or like the Great Chinese Wall, which gives its name to one section. Collisions of southern heated air currents with this high stone mass creates intense thunderstorms and cyclones. Lightning hitting the land contributes fertility and the fires set by it repeatedly clear the land of trees.
The earliest maps of the Front were sketched by first white men informed by indigenous world-views. They didn’t think about the cordilla of parallel n/s ridges -- which we can now see from the air and which so taunted Lewis and Clark, because they would struggle up to one divide only to see another range on the horizon. What they saw was a horizon, the eye-sight panorama. The maps show landmarks, esp. peaks often compared to a “tooth” and the deep valleys with streams eroding and irrigating them, good for hunting and for camping with a little shelter and source of firewood.
This last one is meant to point out actual geology as you drive on Highway 2 through Marias Pass. I’ll come back to the overthrust.
First, I want to bring into consciousness the greatWestern Interior Seaway (also called the Cretaceous Seaway, the Niobraran Sea, and the North American Inland Sea) was a large inland sea that existed during the mid- to late Cretaceous period as well as the very early Paleogene, splitting the continent of North America into two landmasses, Laramidia to the west and Appalachia to the east. The ancient sea stretched from the Gulf of Mexico and through the middle of the modern-day countries of the United States and Canada, meeting with the Arctic Ocean to the north. At its largest, it was 2,500 feet (760 m) deep, 600 miles (970 km) wide and over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) long. (This paragraph from Wikipedia.)
It is this vast often-shallow sea in which the baculites and ammonites of the Blackfeet ceremonial iniskum formed, the little squidish creatures with segmented compartments which -- when broken apart -- look like teeny buffalo. The original shell with its mother-of-pearl rainbows sometimes still present suggested fat to the indigenous people -- meaning prosperous times. They are good luck charms.
Certain this is true of the people who found and “owned” the oil and coal deposits left by vegetation -- no doubt with a few dinosaur inclusions -- that was eventually crushed into simple carbon fuel we extract today. They hunger for what they might find in the Lewis Overthrust, thinking it will be geologically like the formations that produced the early Blackfeet oil fields and the Alberta oil fields to the north. Others say the Overthrust is much more jumbled and has trapped any oil in small scattered amounts impractical for drilling. This is the power-struggle at the core of the fight over the Badger-Two Medicine land: a trajectory of profit for a human organization that will disperse in the near future versus a continuous upwelling of sacredness that comes from reducing human lives to humble specks in the great arc of time.