Thursday, December 3, 2015


A little puddle where it shouldn't be.

My work day kind of got washed out.  It’s a long story, but it’s about water.  A week ago a nice little reflecting pond formed in front of my house.  No bubbling, no spreading, just a quiet little pond in about the same place we dug up a year or so ago.  So I let the Town Hall know.  Nothing happened.

There are two employees of the town.  Both have been here decades and much of the vital info about the infrastructure is in their heads.  The previous mayor, McKenzie Graye, got them to draw maps and write accounts, but that’s never enough.  In the last few days one man’s family sustained tragedies and the other man was struggling with his health, which has suffered for a long time.  The men are aging and wearing right along with the infrastructure.  They are human infrastructure.

This small town accumulates complaints, resentments, vendettas -- just like any small town.  Actually the dynamics are a lot like a small church except without the constant attention to morality (if they have a decent minister).  A church is based on consensus of moral standards; a town is not, esp. in a time like this when the shifting of populations is at a high and unpredictable rate.  Some have fantasies, some are struggling with low income, some don’t look different but are, and so on.  The upshot is a LOT of complaint and accusation, building and building and building . . .

An example from elsewhere

All my training in “getting to yes,” “building consensus,” “creating mission-statements” and organizational development are useless.  The people are blind to them.  Not myself nor anyone else has the credibility to move intransigence out of the way so we have space for a future.  Every viable candidate for the last decade has been almost immediately hamstrung by gossip and semi-secret, often irrelevant accusations.  At the moment we’re voting by mail.  The present mayor is a space-holder, not a candidate.  He was strong-armed into the job and will be relieved to escape.

Today, pursuing how to get my water leak fixed, I was told that our water master had quit.  I am kerflummoxed.   He has found another job, better suited to his health issues.  Now some people will have to come to terms with hating him so much.   In any case, his gout has become so severe that sometimes he can’t make a grip on a shovel handle, much less dig. (Somehow I’m not surprised that in the last windstorm the trees in his front yard fell on his pickup.) The plan is for him and Leo, the other worker, to dig on Monday.  I’ll be surprised.  There are no backup younger men who have been groomed for the job.  Everyone has used up their energy hating and resisting the two workers.  Who wants to walk into a shit storm?

The alternative is to hire an outside contractor.  There’s one right here in town who knows the pipes, has worked for the town before, and has been on the town council.  A kafuffle about a gravel purchase ballooned into a bitter quarrel and he’s been out of the loop for years. Maybe he won’t be willing to dig.

I haven’t been an activist but rather a monitor, attending the town council meetings, trying to see both the small trip-wires and the big national forces that are affecting us.  It’s worth doing partly because I’m living here and partly because people from across the continent tell me that the dynamics where they are defeat their towns in the same ways of neglect and blame.  It seems to be our present culture.

Death by water

We want what we see on television and what advertising tells us are markers of virtue.  We don’t have strategies for getting those things, but somehow it seems as though other people are doing it.  They must be cheating.  (See the pieces I’ve been writing about trying to reconcile gut feelings with logical deduction.)

All I’ve done is talk to people who I feel fairly sure will understand what I’m saying and who won’t react with rage.  There aren’t many.  My confidence in who is peaceful is not high.  Too many are so invested in their widely shared accusations that they can’t back out of them.  Big city liberals would be amazed at the woman-haters, Indian-haters, white-haters, poverty-haters, stigma-mongers.  Unless we come to a crux point, it mostly stays hidden.  Outside journalists would probably not detect it and they don’t really care about anything that’s not sensational enough to win prizes.  The whole nation is based on sensationalism, and that’s not good for civics.

One of the most uncontrollable and predatory aspects of this situation is a state capital out of touch and imposing restrictions, building hatred and small town determination to avoid any kind of restrictions, let alone cooperation.  They don’t see the need.  Another equal force is economic: there isn’t enough work to make a living, civic organizations have faded, hobbies have given way to passive TV.  Even something so virtuous as “National Geographic” is hard to assimilate through a beer haze or while chatting on a handheld.

Front lawn of the City Hall

The residents of the town live there and vote for town leaders, but the surrounding service areas (school districts, gas lines, electricity) mean people who use the town -- in fact, are the reason for the existence of the town -- don’t live there and don’t pay taxes or vote there.  But these are not anarchists nor inclined to be laissez faire.  They have to do SOMETHING to protect themselves so they use sock puppets, cat’s paws, proxies, raw personal influence, and the county machinery.  This is not to mention the shell corporations who try to pick up the tax lien debris of a shrinking town.  “Lakeside Montana Property!”  Sales won’t be to locals.

The money involved in town government has exploded because it is capital investment fueled by grants and loans in major amounts (check the billboard in front of the City Hall) and laws that would impose huge fines for OSHA offenses, lagoon water quality offenses, failure to repay loans, etc.  You can’t lock up the town, but you can make the people suffer by adding penalties to infrastructure bills.  For the last fifty years I’ve watched businesses run to failure, the last assets simply abandoned.  

And then there are the dynamics of living up against the reservation, not very far from the Canadian border.  In a little town everyone thinks is Mayberry, USA, no one suspects drugs, smuggling, etc.   How does one find the balance between suspecting everything and ignoring everything?

One of the fascinations in reading the historical records is that it soon becomes clear that the more things change, the more they remain the same.  A few buffalo wandering through the picture is not going to make the water stop running downhill.  But once the railroad is built and running, things get a lot easier and faster, except for the lives of human beings.  The lives of the Conrad brothers, William right here,  Charles in Kalispell, and John surviving for a while in Billings, until his wife left, taking the children to Europe.  John was last sighted in Alaska.  These sibs went from pleasant Virginia, to bloody Civil War, to risky frontiers, to ventures dependent on cattle and capital, to irrigated grain.  The stories are exciting but end with diabetes, isolation, suicide, broken families, the usual alcoholism.  In short, us.

This book is on Amazon for one penny plus shipping.

Barnaby Conrad III is the surviving great-grandson.  I strongly recommend his book about all this:  “Ghost Hunting in Montana”.   His father, Barnaby II,  was a classic adventurer.  Look for his books as well.


From The Valerian,  2-26-14
The Town of Valier’s Roger Skogen was presented the 2014 “Wastewater System Operations Specialist of the Year” award last weekend at the annual conference of Montana Rural Water Systems, Inc. in Great falls.
Skogen was described during the award presentation as an “individual who always has a quick smile, a positive attitude and customer service skills that go above and beyond.” In recent years, Skogen has been “very proactive in researching problems with the town’s wastewater lagoon system. This research was key in the decision making process to perform a major construction upgrade.”
Skogen’s foresight was credited with the Town of Valier beginning the process to apply for funding and in securing an engineer prior to receiving an Administrative Order on Consent from the Department of Environmental Quality.

Maintaining certifications as the Town of Valier’s wastewater and water operator, Skogen was appointed by the Governor to the Water and Wastewater Operator’s Advisory Council and is currently serving as president of the council.
Roger in the middle


The new water tower and pump house

This morning my shower siphoned my toilet.  Somehow the cross-connection backflow had gone bonkers.  This is the what backflow means:

Later in the day, the problem ended.  This is our first week without one of our city workers, the one who was in charge of “dirty” water.  Could that be the problem or is my house trying to do me in  -- again?   The two aspects of the town’s piping is one that brings the potable (clean enough to drink) water into the house and one that carries the used water out to the sewage lagoon.  In the past the two men had divided the work between them with the dirty water being managed by Roger, who was wooed away by a different town.  I don’t know whether this backflow problem was about “dirty” or “clean” water but it hardly matters since now one guy must do both.  His health is not good.  Water masters are in short supply.  City employees here take so much criticism and second-guessing that it won’t be easy to hire.

Clearly, we citizens need to get informed about managing small town water systems very quickly.  Luckily the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has posted on YouTube a whole series about this, called “Managing a Small Town Public Water System”.  The link above is to the fifth vid in the series.  It’s not the only YouTube series about such practical matters.  Other towns also register advice, and I’ve begun watching them all.  I realized what a great household resource YouTube is when my toilet shut-off valve wore out months ago and the replacement wasn’t the familiar bulb-on-an-arm I’d dealt with before, but rather some puzzling tube thing.

The actual well house for the new well.

Maybe no one realizes how much maintenance and management a water system needs.  We have two water-towers now, four wells, different kinds of pumps, and several miles of “tubing” through the town and out to the sewage lagoon.  All this stuff is vulnerable to weather, usage, and small disasters like pipe collapse.  There’s a lot of checking, adjusting, and just monitoring.

This lady speaks about the planetary version of water distribution and says there is always the same amount of water on Earth.  I had no idea.  It changes states (vapor, liquid, fluid) but not amount.  I keep having realizations: like water towers are only needed if there’s no hill to get the water tank up high for gravity flow.  This is an excellent thing to remember if you’re siting a new town.  Heart Butte, Cut Bank, Shelby and Conrad all have that advantage.

When I first came to Browning in 1961, the water system was poorly understood.  One tank was up by Parsons -- you could see it along highway 89 -- and a water tower was a few blocks from me.  The line between the two had just been reinstalled without an engineer, so the trench had been dug a certain depth, the pipe was put in and connected, but because it followed the contours of the land, it airlocked all the time.  Most of it had been dug up and realigned.  The water tower itself was sometimes filled with a pump turned on by hand and sometimes the operator forgot to come back and turn off the pump on time, so that it overflowed.  The sound always made met think it had begun to rain, usually at night when no one was drawing water.  That water tower has been torn down recently.

This is the old Valier water tower.  
I think the pump house must be one of the little brown buildings at the foot.

All water distribution systems vary in pressure, which is much of what has to be watched and adjusted.  A water master must be in town 24/7 to deal with emergencies from broken pipes or failed pumps.  That’s why there are two.

One takes classes to learn about how to become a “water master”  who is certified to manage a town water system.  This website provides news about the tests and YouTube practice questions.  “MOST” stands for McLean's Operational Services Training.  There are specific variations in various locations.

One that struck me right off was the one about “blue baby syndrome” which is about nitrates that get into the water systems, particularly when there is a lot of nitrate use for fertilizer in conjunction with irrigation.  Once I helped deliver a calf with nitrate in it’s system: it lived only as long as the mother’s oxygen was in its blood.  Nitrates replace hemoglobin, producing chemical suffocation.  The calf seemed fine but with a minute was inert -- no convulsions, no bleeding, no wound.  Just dead.  I hope local obstetricians check for nitrates in the mother’s blood as a standard part of prenatal care.  I know of one ranch well that was contaminated.  There was a pregnant female in the family. 

By now I’ve subscribed to three separate u-tube “flows” of information about town water systems.  No one is going to hire a tubby old lady to be a water master, but maybe I’ll take the exam just to see whether I could pass it.  The fees cost a few hundreds of dollars.  The problem we’ve got here is that $15 an hour is not enough to attract a prepared water master, so we would have to take a chance on fronting the money for the tests -- the state allows six months to a year to pass -- for someone who might not pass or might get discouraged and quit.   

These YouTubes are called “virtual training” rather than “online education.”  They tend to be practical demonstrations, video courses that ought to prepare one for the state exam.  Each of the following (which is the list of lessons offered by MOST) costs $10, which should be added to the cost of the test.  As you can see, this is not the same as turning a garden hose on and off.  Skills needed are chemistry, geology, hydrology, but -- most of all -- math.  Roger has needed marksmanship in order to remove muskrats who burrow through the outer earth wall, threatening to drain the lagoon.

The lagoon, improvement nearly complete.
A storm coming in from the north.

The factor that haunts us here is extreme low temps.  After we failed our coliform tests repeatedly last winter, we had to add a cover and circulation pumps to keep the “bugs” warm enough to digest waste.  It’s just being finished. The state requires engineers because too many amateurs think things are simple when they are not.  But engineers slip up, too.  I don’t know what their excuse is, but it’s not helpful when they come from some other ecology.

Some of these water master subjects may seem a little exotic.  The one about iron and manganese treatment is what made reservation water impossible to use for dialysis -- when chlorine hit, it precipitated into little black dots.  It was an expensive struggle to find a local clean water source, but a necessary one to keep people from having to travel a hundred miles to a dialysis center several times a week.  We used to joke about the local water guy in 1990 in Heart Butte -- which was either before the state standards were passed or so remote a community that no one checked.  If he needed to go to town and wouldn’t be there to dump in the chlorine that day, he just dumped in double, figuring that it would average out.  Sometimes the teachers looked a little pale, but we were “pale faces” anyway.  (Jokes.  I’ve learned to mark my jokes since some people mistake them for insults.)  We were constantly afflicted by low-grade GI upsets.

The Valier Trash Roll-off
When the wind is blowing hard it hums fiercely.


The Hydrologic Cycle
Pipe Systems
Flow Meters
Chloramines in the Distribution System
Back flow and cross connections
Dimensional Analysis
Area Calculation
Volume Calculation
Flow Rate Calculation
Velocity Calculation, Friction, and Hydraulic Grade Lines
Chemical Feed Calculations: The Pounds Formula
Chemical Feed Calculations: Chlorination  (2 parts
Static Hydraulics: Density, Specific Gravity, and Pressure
CT Calculations
Activated Carbon Adsorption
Ion Exchange
Iron and Manganese Treatment
Lime Softening
The Nature of Water
Secondary Standards
Microbiology for Operators
The Total Coliform Rule and Measuring Coliforms
Disinfection By-Products
General Source Water Characteristics
The Surface Water Treatment Rule
Filtration (2 parts)

Lately the work load for the city employees has increased because the postal service changed their schedule and cannot deliver water samples to the lab in the time window.  Since Leo can't leave town because he's the only water master, the town clerk must drive the samples to Cut Bank where they go by UPS to the closest lab.

The Valier water system does not only serve the residents.  Some ranches have no well, so they must come into town to fill up giant tanks that can be emptied into their underground cisterns.  Aside from household use, they mix the water with herbicides and fertilizer as well as watering livestock.   A little tricky when it’s thirty below.  Of course, anyone who comes to church, school, cafe, service station is using the town water system.  We are learning to think of the town as the center of a wider area that is a service area, like the gas, the telephone lines, the electricity.  Water is the key to life itself, but distribution, use and safety are what turn the key.


I’ve just about reached my limit.  It’s not about writing or anything like that.  It’s about “iatrogenic plumbing”.  Iatrogenic medicine is when the docs, in trying to cure the patient, make him/her worse, maybe even create a new disease.  So I’ve moved the term over to plumbing infrastructure, both in houses and in the streets.  

Yesterday, while I wrote furiously in the next room, a plumber was using the “BIG” roto-rooter to get my main waste drain cleared out.  This was an actual professional plumber from the county seat.  The machine was so big that it was like doing Rubik’s cube to get it into my tiny bathroom, even though I’d moved everything portable out.  The final conclusion was that the pipe was NOT invaded by roots, which is very common in a warm fall like this one, but was probably blocked by collapse of the old line.  This will be the fourth time that this line is dug up and it’s beginning to cost real money.

The first time we dug was when the line sprung a little leak under the sidewalk.  The second time was farther up the line and may have been somehow linked to the first “fix” detaching between the two materials, old and new.  The third time might have been almost any cause, another slow leak.   But this emergency is thought to be a line collapse that’s totally blocking passage of even water.  By the end of today we’ll know more.  In the meantime I have no toilet.  Fortunately, I have a camp version.

We have had two town workers who handled these things.  One of them was hired away for a much better job covering the district.   The other was badly hurt in a trench collapse because the town tried to save money by not buying a “trench box” that fortifies the walls.  They’re expensive, heavy, and awkward, but they save lives.  We have one now.  We’ve had an election in which our competent previous mayor was displaced by a nut case who quit after a week in office.  (He got in by spreading malicious gossip.)  So today the recovering town employee and a Valier citizen who was once on the council, and who runs an excavation and gravel company, will give it a try.  Our new mayor takes office January 1 and we have high hopes.

The county assessor cannot see these things when she does her drive-by estimates.  She assumes foundations and that the interiors are as standard as the houses where she has lived, fully equipped and maintained.  Taxes, sewer and water, electricity, gas, are scaled for parts of the country where the population is much thicker, and so are the Codes.  Many houses in town have for sale signs, but probably many people are just fishing.

By living in a ramshackle old house, I am able at 76 to write all day, hunkered down with my library and internet connection, which is also developing aging and deterioration just like the other infrastructures.  My eyes are my “infra-structure” and they are giving me problems.  Luckily I’ve discovered $20 eyeglasses from China that are better than the $300 ones I’ve always bought from optometrists.

In summary, I may let down my standards for this blog, which were to write at least 1,000 words a day every day.  Not trivia but things that require research and reflection.  I’m still chasing matters that I began reading about in high school, like creativity and what organic really means.  There are many social issues crying out for insight.  I think there are a lot of people out there writing this same way, but no one knows about them and publishing never did pay much attention.  Now they have become blood-suckers. 

My main email is still up.  prairiem at  I have a landline but no smart phone, tablet, or cell connection.  It’s a long drive from anywhere.  If you travel this time of year, you must watch the weather closely.  My water line is working, so I can make coffee.