It’s raining in northeastern Montana today. A wet spring following a long winter. The water stands in the wheat and hay fields along U.S. Highway 2 and farmers hereby must wonder when spring will come – if it will come.
The BNSF railroad parallels the highway in this out-of-the-way corner of Montana and both crisscross the Milk River as it meanders to join the big Missouri. In this area just south of the Canadian border, the highway and the railway connect small and shrinking places with distinctly European names – Glasgow, Zurich, Malta and Havre.
This is the Montana Hi-Line, once the pioneering route of James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. The railroad baron, “the empire builder,” Hill was an advocate of dry land farming and he built his Great Northern west from St. Paul to Seattle, in part, to compete with the rival Northern Pacific, but also to create a transportation route for European immigrants who hoped to fine a bit of agricultural heaven in dry land Montana – hence the names of those glamorous sounding towns along the Hi-Line.
There may be almost too much water this year, but it isn’t always so. Many of the early-day “honyockers, “the immigrant homesteaders who bought into Hill’s railroad marketing, didn’t make it. You can still see the evidence in widely scattered farms that once must have seemed like heaven, that is until the water ran out, the rain didn’t come and the grass gave up.
When Franklin Roosevelt’s special train rolled along the Hi-Line in August of 1934, it was drought the folks in northeastern Montana were talking about. Unlike this wet year, the problems in the 1930’s were too much debt and too little water. Roosevelt knew what to do. One farmer in North Dakota yelled at the president: “You gave us beer,” a reference to the end of prohibition, “now give us water.” He did.
With the stroke of a pen, thanks to the powers granted him by creation of the Public Works Administration, FDR authorized the construction of massive Fort Peck Dam. It was the biggest earthern dam in the world when it was completed in 1940. It’s still one of the largest in the world. If you could stretch out the lake shore in a straight line it would reach from northeastern Montana to Atlanta. It’s a very big pond.
FDR came to the Hi-Line in ’34 to see the huge dam under construction. Roosevelt sung the praises of water development in the 1930’s, but was largely motivated to create Fort Peck as a tool to fight unemployment and that worked, too. By the time construction on the dam was in high gear as many as 10,500 workers crawled over the ground south of Glasgow, pushing and hauling thousands of tons of dirt and rock to raise the dam high above the river. It’s estimated more than 50,ooo people worked on the project at one time or another.
The speed with which Fort Peck took shape – work was underway less than two weeks after Roosevelt issued his OK – was also helped by the absense of any requirement for an environmental impact statement (EIS). There was no Endangered Species Act in 1934 and no environmental group stood by to sue to stop the dam. It was a very different time.
Locals recall that folks in northeastern Montana felt it was a patriotic duty to support the construction project, even those who owned the land that is now at the bottom of Fort Peck Lake. This was the era of big dam construction. FDR stopped on his way to Montana to look at Grand Coulee Dam in Washington on the upper Columbia, which was also under construction, as was Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia..
It seems almost inconceivable today that any of thse big dams, let alone three at once, could be constructed. They likely wouldn’t pencil out in a cost-benefit analysis, the EIS would take years and cost millions, the Congressional hearings would drag on forever, the money would be difficult (or impossible) to appropriate and those most impacted could instantly put up a Facebook page to protest. It is a very different time.
The fine and talented folks at the Wheeler Center at Montana State University are hosting a conference on the cost of water in northeastern Montana today and tomorrow. They may well conclude that water is priceless, but also too cheap. We take it for granted in the United States, while much of the rest of the world struggles to get enough to get by on a daily basis.
It’s a good time to think about the cost of water. Drought isn’t gripping the throat of the Great Plains this year, instead folks are fleeing the rising river system as far south as Memphis.
Hard to believe looking at the map, but the water backing up behind Fort Peck in this rugged corner of Montana is all part of the hydrology of a river system that drains most of the United States and give life to crops, floats a barge, supports a water skier and, yes, once in a while floods a farmer’s field and drenches a town. Water, it seems, only becomes important when there’s too much or not enough.
Franklin Roosevelt came to Montana more than 70 years ago to make the water stretch and we’re still working on that idea. FDR was determined to “exploit” the resource. He talked about a project to benefit “the whole Nation” and Fort Peck on the upper Missouri is a testament to that vision. Fork Peck simply became the New Deal in Montana. The construction of the dam was envisioned as helpful to flood control and navigation far downstream – Memphis may disagree – and, of course, the president wanted to use this early day “stimulus funding” to whack at the nasty unemployment rate. Hardly anyone disagreed.
Today the Corps of Engineer’s managers at Fort Peck use several fingers to tick off their responsibilities – flood control, navigation, irrigation, recreation, power generation, water quality and fish and wildlife conservation. We still want to make the water stretch.
Long ago the age of building big dams was declared dead, never to rise again. Given the enormous cost and the often unattractive tradeoffs involved in backing up a mighty river its hard to argue that the big dam era is long past and should remain so. Still, standing in the bowels of the big Montana dam this morning and listening to the massive turbines hum – they turn at exactly 167 revolutions per minute – one cannot help but reflect on a simplier time when it was part of America’s claim to greatness that we could build such things.
The Missouri in northeastern Montana is running full tilt this May and they are shooting water down the Fort Peck spillway for the first time since 1997. That mighty, precious water may just be the most valuable thing on this blue planet. Years ago harnessing it behind a massive earthen dam was a symbol of American power. Being smart enough to use that water wisely in the 21st Century is a test of whether we know how to use that kind of power today.