Concern over a proposed water-bottling plant near Creston has sprung from a trickle to a flood as 30 nearby water users push the project through an additional layer of state review, while a recently formed organization working to block the plant’s development has asked Flathead County commissioners to issue a moratorium on commercial water bottling operations.
Residents opposed to the bottling plant along the Flathead River say the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation failed to adequately assess the impacts to other water users when it granted a preliminary water right permit earlier this year.
The opposition is centered on Lew Weaver, the owner of Montana Artesian Water Co., who is seeking a water right permit from the state to pump up to 710 acre-feet, or 191.6 million gallons of water annually from an underground aquifer near Egan Slough along the Flathead River.
Weaver’s request, and his goal to produce up to 140,000 water bottles per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at a facility on his farmland, drummed up considerable attention, fueling concerns among neighbors and residents across the valley, and prompting DNRC officials to extend the period for objections.
Of the 85 objections the state agency received, it determined that 39 met the proper criteria and were deemed valid.
Many of those objections came from nearby water users, but the state agency also ruled that objections were valid from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Flathead Lakers, and others.
John Grassy, a spokesperson for the DNRC, said a hearing to consider the objections is slated for July 7, but given the volume of objectors it will likely be pushed back following a scheduling conference set for June 24.
The crux of the argument from residents, who are all represented by Bozeman attorney Ryan Mattick, is that the DNRC should have employed a higher threshold of scrutiny when it issued its preliminary permit, in part because Mattick says Weaver intends to export the bottled water to out-of-state markets, triggering an elevated evidence threshold under Montana law.
“The DNRC applied the same standard that it would to any other application for a water right permit, but what makes this different is that Montana Artesian Water Co. is going to sell out of state,” Mattick said. “That requires a higher standard that the applicant has to meet, and the DNRC did not use that higher standard.”
Meanwhile, the citizens’ group Water for Flathead’s Future has submitted a “water protection” ordinance and two zoning-resolution requests for consideration by the Flathead County commissioners, one of which would effectively place a moratorium on water bottling plants.
In a letter accompanying the requests, Missoula attorney Robert Gentry encouraged the county commissioners to adopt an interim-zoning proposal prohibiting water-bottling operations on unincorporated land in the county for a year.
The other would require a conditional use permit for such operations and force the permit holder to mitigate any associated impacts to private property and transportation.
Gentry said intervention by the commissioners is necessary because the DNRC’s ongoing review process does not address potential impacts to the environment, neighboring property rights and traffic safety.
According to calculations by PureSafe Water Systems, an outfit commissioned by Mattick, distributing the water bottles at full build out would require 105 truckloads per day.
Gentry also recommended a study to consider amending the county’s growth policy, or zoning un-zoned land in the area.
“My clients assure me that they are in favor of appropriate and beneficial growth in Flathead County, but not private entitlement that results in extraordinary deleterious impacts to other private property rights,” Gentry said. “The water of Flathead County is a precious resource held in trust for all Flathead County residents and future generations.”
Flathead County Commission chairwoman Pam Holmquist said she doesn’t know whether the requests fall under the county’s legal jurisdiction, and she has forwarded the proposed measures to the Flathead County Attorney’s Office for review.