Protect Our Water Rights and Our Property Rights

The debate around the water bottling plant in Creston is about far more than that one factory

By Sandy Perry

Imagine if Phoenix or Los Angeles wanted to build a pipeline to the Flathead Valley and tap into our groundwater. You might think there would be some powerful people here in the valley asking some pointed questions.

Well, that’s what is coming. Except the water will leave Montana in billions of plastic bottles instead of a pipe. And the authorities tasked with looking out for us are conspicuously silent.

The debate around the water bottling plant in Creston is about far more than that one factory. It is about unprecedented industrial water bottling in the Flathead Valley. The real question is, will the Flathead Valley of Montana relinquish its water – a natural resource that belongs to all of us and is supposed to be used for the common good. In fact, while the owners of Montana Artesian Water and other potential bottling companies make bundles of money selling a natural resource that doesn’t even belong to them (it’s owned by the state and hence the people), the neighbors will pay the costs of deepening their wells, adding or replacing pumps and face the devaluation of their property. Overnight their neighborhood will change from tranquil farmland into an industrial zone with a water bottling plant operating 24 hours a day with trucks around the clock creating noise, dust and hazardous road conditions.

Take heed neighbors. If the wells in Creston aren’t safe, then your well isn’t safe either – no matter what part of Flathead County you call home.

The first time the Creston neighbors heard of this water bottling plant was in a legal notice from our state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), which gave them just a few weeks to mount a professional opposition – with lawyers, hydrologists and other consultants – tens of thousands of dollars in just a few weeks to combat 2 years of preparation by the bottling plant. That’s not a level playing field and is certainly not neighborly.

The market for bottled water is huge. It now constitutes a bigger part of the business for many soft drink companies than their original products. Cities all over the country and the world have seen what they considered abundant water resources depleted by big water bottling – leaving them holding the bag. We in the Flathead Valley are blessed with water, but we should not take it for granted. Recent presentations by scientists from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology make it clear that our water resources have not been studied thoroughly enough. There has been no modeling for factors such as warming temperatures, early melting snow pack, a growing population and drought.

The assertion that this permit is no different from a large pivot irrigation system is wrong. For one thing, if it were, neither the farmers in our group, nor the sportsmen, businesspeople, landowners or the rest of us would be mounting this opposition. Irrigation is a beneficial use that enables farmers to grow their crops during the short, dry summer season. Too much water will harm crops, and irrigation is unnecessary when it rains. Water bottling factories don’t stop, they take water 24-7, all year round.

This current proposal is the tip of the iceberg. Huge international water bottling companies like Nestle, Pepsi and Coca-Cola are looking for water rights – and they look for places unable or unwilling to put up a fight. In a deal like this, the company reaps the profits and the people of Flathead County are left paying the bills and taking the risks.

Water is the lifeblood of the Flathead Valley – our most precious resource. Whether we were born here, or were drawn to the area because of its beauty, we value our land, our mountains, valleys, fields of canola and wheat, rivers, streams, aquifers and lakes. We call upon our elected officials to look out for the common good – the majority of property owners who believe that our most precious resource should be managed sustainably – and for generations to come.

Water for Flathead’s Future (waterforflatheadsfuture.org) is a brand new group of Flathead County citizens concerned about the future of our water resources. We are asking our county and state officials to slow this process way down and make sure all the very legitimate public concerns are addressed before we open the floodgates to multinational water companies who crave what we have, but care more about their bottom line than our community’s future. We ask our officials to “look before they leap.” People have asked us “what are the cons?” to this operation – the real question is “what are the pros?”

Sandy Perry is chair of Water for Flathead’s Future

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