DNRC faces tough questions at bottling-plant hearing

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

The Montana Artesian Water Company’s plan to bottle Creston’s groundwater drew fresh scrutiny Tuesday morning.

In a mostly full ballroom at Kalispell’s Fairbridge Inn & Suites, Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation opened a multi-day hearing to decide whether to grant the company, founded by Flathead resident Lew Weaver, a water-use permit to tap the aquifer.

The courtroom-style hearing began with both sides’ attorneys making their case before DNRC examiner David Vogler. One of the objectors’ attorneys, Peter Carroll, presented opening testimony on behalf of his wife, Dora. In a nod to the tensions that the dispute has sown, he told attendees that, “my wife is an objector, she is not a monster.”

“She has a right to be here,” he continued, “and a right to be concerned about the issuance of a permit the size and depth of which Mr. Lew Weaver is seeking.”

The other objectors who turned out Tuesday, including members of Water for Flathead’s Future and representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, shared those concerns.

Montana Artesian Water Company seeks permission to withdraw 710 acre-feet of water per year, or about 450 gallons per minute, although it maintains that it would take much less at first. To block or reduce the permit, applicants will need to show evidence for an “adverse effect” if Montana Artesian Water Company pumps its maximum amount.

DNRC has already issued a preliminary determination that no such effect will occur. Attorneys on both sides spent the morning cross-examining the officials tasked with making that decision.

Kathy Olsen, regional manager of DNRC’s Kalispell office, told John Ferguson, lead counsel for non-FWS objectors, that data from Weaver’s site had been sent to hydrologists in Helena, who provided her and her co-workers with a detailed analysis of the site.

As he probed the technicalities of the dispute, Ferguson raised the possibility that the hydrologists had been missing required pieces of data, such as the depths and diameters of certain wells, and where they had been perforated.

“That minimum information is not on Form 633, correct?” he asked Olsen, referring to the form that requested the information.

“It would seem so”

She later admitted that DNRC had also not considered how Egan Slough water rights could be affected, even though Egan Slough is part of the Flathead River system that it did examine. “It was a mistake on our part.”

John Bloomquist, lead counsel for Montana Artesian Water Company, sought to put these lapses into perspective. “In your experience, is data sometimes missing or unknown when you go to fill out a Form 633?”

“Yes, because it’s done so early in the process,” Olsen replied, adding that the hydrologists in Helena could have requested further information from Weaver if necessary. Under further questioning from Bloomquist, she also stated that the agency’s conclusion would be the same if the Egan Sloughs water rights had been incorporated.

One of Weaver’s neighbors at the hearing, Dale Sonstelie, wasn’t convinced by Bloomquist’s examination.

“I think on their applications...it seems to me, at least if I was in authority, they would have to fill it out.”

Sonstelie said he has two water rights, one to divert water from the Flathead River and one for a domestic well, and described Weaver’s plans as “careless.”

Darryl James, a consultant for Montana Artesian Water Company, re-iterated Lew Weaver’s “interest in giving valid objections a fair hearing,” in a phone interview with the Daily Inter Lake. “From Day One,” he said, Weaver has been “interested in going through an objective review.”

That review is set to continue tomorrow, when expert witnesses will take the stand. The objectors say that these scientists and engineers will present evidence for an “adverse effect” if Weaver gets his permit.

“I think our attorneys are doing a great job,” said Dierdre Coit, chairperson of Water for Flathead’s Future, “...and I think when the engineers come up, they’re going to be even more blown away.”

The hearing will resume at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 20. It is being held at the Fairbridge Inn and Suites, at 1701 U.S. 93 South. 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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