Bottling plant dispute heads to hearing

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The Montana Artesian Water Co. facility in Creston. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

Beginning on Tuesday, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will hear both sides in a contentious dispute over a proposed water-bottling plant near Creston.

Local farmer and businessman Lew Weaver needs DNRC to grant a beneficial water-use permit before his firm, the Montana Artesian Water Co., can start bottling water from the underlying aquifer. Tuesday’s “contested case” administrative hearing is a step toward granting that permit — or, opponents hope, denying it.

“I think we’re pretty ready to fight it,” Weaver’s neighbor, Deirdre Coit, told the Daily Inter Lake. “Hopefully, we will prevail. I believe we will.”

Coit chairs Water for Flathead’s Future, which formed to oppose Weaver’s venture and is one of the objectors to his application. They will be joined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Flathead Lakers and other area residents.

The opponents have a wide range of fears about the plant. But with this week’s hearing focused on the water-use permit, they’ll likely stress their concerns about the amount of water Weaver plans to withdraw.

Weaver seeks permission to pump a maximum of 710 acre-feet per year, or about 450 gallons per minute. But Montana Artesian Water Co.’s website says that “the initial phase water bottling operations will utilize approximately 25 to 30 gallons per minute.”

He has already received a separate permit to discharge an amount of wastewater that intake level would produce.

But Coit puts little stock in these plans.

“You’re basically using what comes out of a garden hose,” she says of the 25 to 30 gpm amount.

As the Daily Inter Lake reported in July, neighbors fear that Weaver will either build out his plant to consume the maximum amount, or enter a relationship with another bottler that will. That, they worry, could lower the water table that the area depends on.

Weaver declined to respond to these concerns in a phone interview with the Daily Inter Lake. According to his website, “the bottling plant can eventually be enlarged and scaled up to package more water,” but “there are no near-term plans” to pump 450 gpm.

Nancy Zalutsky, a water rights specialist at Ponderosa Advisors, LLC, said that water-permit users often take decades to fully use their permit. With “a subdivision or a city or a factory, it’s going to take you 20 to 25 years to get to full build-out.”

To block the permit, she continued, objectors will “need to come in and present evidence of why they will be adversely affected. An ‘adverse effect’ is not your well being a foot deeper...it is the inability to reasonably divert your water.”

According to a DNRC press release, the hearing will unfold like a courtroom trial, with both sides presenting evidence and testimony. Once it concludes and the record is closed, examiner David Vogler will have 90 days to reach a decision, explained Millie Heffner, DNRC’s Water Rights Bureau Chief.

The examiner can either grant the permit, grant it with modifications, or deny it. Zalutsky said he has read DNRC’s preliminary determination in the matter, and expects it to grant the permit. But either party can appeal the state’s decision in district court — a step that Coit predicts the loser will take.

“Either he’s going to lose and take us to district court, or we’re going to lose and take him to district court”

The hearing will begin at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 19, and is expected to last two or three days. It will be held at the Fairbridge Inn and Suites, at 1701 U.S. 93 South, not at the Flathead Valley Community College as previously planned. Members of the public are welcome, but there will be no public participation session. Seating is available on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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