Amid public outcry that a Creston farmer downplayed his plans to build a water bottling plant near the Flathead River, the man behind the business venture says he’s open about the project – as transparent as the artesian spring water he intends to pump, bottle and sell.
“This isn’t something that just happened overnight. I’ve been completely open about this, and I’m working through all of the proper regulatory channels,” said Lew Weaver, owner of Montana Artesian Water Co., the company laying the plans for the bottling facility.
Recent news of the proposal opened a floodgate of concern from conservation groups and nearby residents who worry that the water bottling plant would deplete the amount of available water in their own wells. They’ve expressed concern about an uptick in truck traffic on a county road and the potential for discharge water from the plant to despoil nearby wetlands.
But Weaver said he’s not skirting the rules, and that his ties to Montana run as deep as the aquifer he’d be pumping. If he thought the plant would have environmental consequences, he wouldn’t pursue it.
“I have had ties to this valley since the 1960s, and I don’t want to see its natural resources ruined,” Weaver told the Beacon recently at the Kalispell office of Applied Water Consulting, the company in charge of the permitting process for the proposed facility.
In January, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation issued a preliminary water rights permit after determining that the plant would cause “no adverse impacts” to other water rights owners in the area. DNRC officials extended the period for water right holders to object to the plant after a number of residents complained.
The new period to file objections begins Wednesday, March 23, when a public notice is published, and will run through Thursday, April 7.
The most common refrain from residents objecting to the bottling plant relates to the sheer volume of water Montana Artesian Water Co. would be pumping, bottling and discharging.
At maximum build-out, the permit would allow the company to pump 710 acre-feet of water per year from the underground aquifer. That means it could withdraw up to 231.5 million gallons annually, of which it would bottle, ship and sell 191.6 million gallons – the equivalent of 1.2 billion 20-ounce water bottles – while the rest would be reserved for rinsing bottles and equipment, as well as for on-site tap water.
That entails drawing 450 gallons per minute from the well.
Reaching maximum build-out depends on demand and market availability, however, and in the beginning Weaver said Montana Artesian Water Co. would operate 60 hours a week, withdrawing water at a rate of about 25 gallons per minute, or 4.68 million gallons per year.
Hydrogeologist Roger Noble, of Applied Water Consulting, said his modeling of the aquifer shows that it would naturally recharge, and neighboring wells would not be affected.
“This is a highly prolific aquifer,” Noble said.
Other concerns have centered on the discharge water, some of which would include rinse water from the plastic bottles that Weaver plans to manufacture on-site.
In addition to the DNRC permit, Montana Artesian Water Company has applied with the Department of Environmental Quality for permitting under the Montana Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
The company has requested a permit at two outfall points, both of which would discharge effluent into “an unnamed tributary of the Flathead River,” about 1,300 feet away from the river.
One outfall would contain rinse water from plastic water bottles and would average a discharge of 2,640 gallons per day.
“The rinse water is just water, there would be no contamination from the bottles,” Weaver said, adding that the bottles would be made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and be Bisphenol A (BPA) free.
The other outfall would contain non-contact heating water, or geothermal water, and would average a discharge of 33,358 gallons per day.
Brad Bennett, another hydrologist at Applied Water Consulting, said the discharge water is the same groundwater pumped out of the aquifer, and that it is cooled before being fed back into the tributary.
“There was concern about the discharge water having an effect on temperature-sensitive species, but we would be returning water that is about 47 degrees to groundwater that is between 47 and 50 degrees,” Bennett said.
Other neighbors have raised concerns about dust abatement, as distribution of the bottled water would cause a significant uptick in traffic.
According to the DNRC’s preliminary determination to grant the permit, the company intends to use machines that are capable of rinsing and filling 20-ounce water bottles at a rate of 7,000 bottles per hour.
“Ultimately, Montana Artesian Water Company intends to use up to 20 of these machines to produce 140,000 water bottles per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” the application states.
“By my estimates that would mean 70 to 80 trucks a day on that road,” said Charlie Hanson, who lives near the proposed facility. “I’m worried about what that could do to air quality.”
Weaver wouldn’t guess at how much truck traffic would increase on the road, but said he’s agreed to a cost-share dust abatement plan with Flathead County.
The planned traffic route for trucks leaving the facility extends north from the building, through Weaver’s property to Egan Slough Road, then about 1.5 miles to the junction with Montana 35.
Moreover, he said, the business would be a boon to the state and local economies.
“There will be a positive economic impact to Montana and the Flathead Valley. We will be employing Montanans. We will utilize Montana people and employ Montana trucking companies, and a Montana-made product will be promoted across the state,” he said.
Weaver bought his 350-acre ranch in 1989 from the Pederson family, and in addition to raising cattle also grows hay, wheat, barley, peas, and lentils.
But crop prices are volatile, and he began mulling plans for bottled water a decade ago, and has since researched the water bottling industry, including other bottling plants in Montana.
Knowing the superior quality of the water from the Flathead Valley’s deep aquifer, he incorporated Montana Artesian Water Co. as a business in 2014.
Ric Hauer, a University of Montana research scientist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, said residents should be engaged in the proposed project, and be thinking carefully about unintended consequences, rather than a lack of transparency on Weaver’s part.
“On the one side we have the concern about ground water depletions, but not all of the water is going to be bottled and shipped as drinking water,” Hauer said. “What I would recommend to people in that area is that they need more time to look into the potential for this project to have unintended consequences, instead of getting hung up on this guy’s lack of transparency. It’s out on the table now.”
In addition to the DNRC and DEQ permits, Montana Artesian Water Co. would need to be licensed by the Department of Public Health and Human Resources as a food-grade facility, which would be the final regulatory hurdle for Weaver’s company.