A divisive plan to build a water bottling plant near the Flathead River has drawn intense scrutiny since an initial permitting application revealed the full scope of the proposal in January 2016, and emotions have run high ever since.
Last week, dozens of neighbors continued their efforts to halt the proposed development in an administrative setting, during a hearing before the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, one of the state agencies charged with approving or denying plans by the Montana Artesian Water Company.
During the course of the three-day hearing in Kalispell, attorneys representing around 40 objectors laid out their case against the plant, arguing that the state erred when it issued a preliminary water rights permit after determining it would cause “no adverse impacts” to other water rights owners in the area.
Meanwhile, attorneys representing the agency countered residents’ claims that the permitting process was riddled with deficiencies, as well as their assertion that the bottling plant would have adverse effects on neighboring wells and surrounding wetlands that support a suite of wildlife and waterfowl.
The man behind the project is Lew Weaver, whose property sits on the rural landscape bordering Egan Slough along the eastern banks of the Flathead River. Two years ago, a well-drilling rig sprung up on Weaver’s property, drawing the attention of neighbors.
Weaver’s neighbor, Dale Sonstelie, who’s lived on his property for 88 years, recalls Weaver and his wife visiting him at home and announcing their plans to build a water bottling facility.
“They came over and brought a bottle of wine, which we thought was very sociable. There was never anything that night that wasn’t a sociable, friendly sort of gathering,” Sonstelie said. “Then the discussion turned to the bottling plant, and they said they planned to have a small plant that would be producing somewhere between 30 to 40 gallons per minute.”
Most wells consistent with domestic uses in the Creston area produce about 30 gallons per minute. But when neighbors saw a public notice for the water-right application requesting permission to withdraw 710 acre-feet of water per year, or about 450 gallons per minute, they raised the alarm.
“I told Lew, ‘That’s not what the permit says. The permit says 450 gallons per minute,’” Sonstelie recalled.
Although Weaver was present for the first day of the hearing, he apparently fell ill and did not return. The record on the matter will remain open until Weaver can provide testimony.
But Weaver has previously testified that he has no intention of ever developing the bottling facility to its maximum production capacity.
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.
Nearby residents and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates a fish hatchery in Creston, worry the bottling plant will draw down their wells or compromise the artesian pressure, forcing them to install expensive pumping systems, depleting the surrounding wetlands and marring the area’s rural character.
Hydrogeologist Roger Noble, of Applied Water Consulting, whose firm was hired by Weaver, said his modeling of the aquifer shows that it would naturally recharge, and neighboring wells would not be affected.
For the past two years, Steve Harvey has been waging a battle against the proposed facility, along with an army of dedicated local volunteers, residents and community members who organized a nonprofit group Water for Flathead’s Future.
Harvey said he’s been raising concerns with the DNRC from the outset, and hasn’t felt as though his concerns have been addressed.
“I have 12 artesian springs that are wetland and wildlife abundant,” Harvey testified last week. “What happens if they draw my artesian wells down and I have to put a pump in it? What happens to all of those wetlands and springs, and what is it going to do to the value of my place?”
John Ferguson, an attorney representing a large number of objectors in the case, questioned experts about why key data and required pieces of information had been missing from the application to assess potentially adverse effects on neighboring wells, and to determine whether the “legal availability” of water drawn from the aquifer.
Much of the three-day hearing centered on lengthy and technical testimony from scientists with the DNRC’s Montana Water Rights Bureau who assessed the region’s hydrology to determine Weaver’s plant would not have an “adverse effect” on neighboring water supplies.
Attilla Folnagy, a hydrologist with the bureau, provided the analysis the state relied upon when issuing its preliminary determination to grant the permit, and modeled the aquifer based on a solution developed by scientists in 1969.
Ferguson questioned the hydrologist about steps recommended in the modeling solution that were omitted from the state’s analysis, including a recommendation to drill multiple observation wells. He also asked why the state had not used a more sophisticated model developed by Willis Weight, who created a 3-D numerical groundwater flow model for the Flathead Valley.
Mark Maskill, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Creston Fish Hatchery, said the facility is dependent on four artesian wells and a spring-fed pond, producing an average of 850,000 fish annually, including threatened species like bull trout and species of concern like westslope cutthroat.
“If the spring were to fail, the whole Flathead Valley would be in deep trouble,” he said. “If those sources failed or productivity was significantly reduced, we’d be in a bad situation.”
Following the close of the administrative record, the DNRC will issue a final order stating its decision on the water-right application within 90 days. The final order may be appealed by filing a petition in state district court within 30 days after service of the order.