In a formal objection filed earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service challenged the Montana Department of Natural Resources’ determination that a proposed water bottling plant in Creston would not adversely affect the nearby fish hatchery.
The federal agency operates the Creston National Fish Hatchery less than three miles from a well that would pump up to 231.5 million gallons of water from the underlying aquifer each year, according to a preliminary water-rights permit issued to the Montana Artesian Water Co. in January.
The Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed with the modeling used to estimate the proposed water right’s impact on other users, and criticized an internal memo in which the department asserted that the Flathead River and Flathead Lake provide most of the Deep Aquifer’s water.
The source of the proposed plant’s water withdrawals, that aquifer also supplies water to the hatchery, which produces hundreds of thousands of rainbow and westslope cutthroat trout each year.
“Nowhere has consideration been given to a water balance for the aquifer,” the March 17 objection states.
The federal government argues that the Deep Aquifer’s water originates in the Swan Mountain Range, a view shared by the consulting company that oversaw the plant’s water-rights application.
“The aquifer primarily recharges from the snowmelt infiltration that occurs in the mountains and percolates down through the bedrock and into the unconfined aquifer,” Roger Noble, a hydrologist with Applied Water Consulting, said Wednesday. “If anything, the aquifer provides recharge to the lake. But the river is a fairly independent system from the Deep Aquifer.”
However, the service is requesting more detailed results from the state’s hydrological modeling, and noted its own analysis of impacts to the water table differ from the state’s.
The federal agency estimates the hatchery’s wells could see a draw-down of 20 feet.
Regarding the state’s finding of “no adverse effects” from the new water right, the service argues that “the proposed well and pumping diversions will cause a decrease in the artesian pressure of the wells that are utilized on the Creston National Fish Hatchery, and ultimately lead to a loss in our ability to exercise our water right.”
The Creston hatchery gets the bulk of its water from the 27-acre Jessup Mill Pond, which is fed by 13 artesian wells connected to the Deep Aquifer.
From there, it flows through a water treatment system and supplies clean water to dozens of massive, open tanks, called “raceways,” each of which contains tens of thousands of fish during the final stages of their development.
Travis Slivka, the facility’s assistant manager, said the hatchery stocks Montana’s lakes with about 600,000 rainbow trout each year, along with 300,000 westslope cutthroat trout — considered a “species of concern” by the state.
“On average, we’re taking about 7,000 gallons per minute of that water,” Slivka said, adding that the treatment process “is a preventative measure. Our water is 100 percent clean and disease-free.”
But because early-stage fish, or “fry,” are particularly susceptible to disease, the hatchery only rears them in water pumped directly from a separate pair of artesian wells on the property.
Slivka said the supply of pure spring water is critical to ensure that no bacterial contamination enters the tightly controlled tanks that fill the hatchery building.
“It’s also a constant 47 degrees year-round, so we have control over all the variables by using well water,” he added.
The hatchery is among several objectors to the plant’s preliminary water right, which during the last month has attracted criticism from residents throughout the Creston area. An online petition opposing the plant attracted more than 11,000 signatures in the last three weeks.
In response to public requests, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation extended the objection period deadline to April 7.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at email@example.com.
Brian Ham, a fish biologist for the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, feeds the fish in the raceway at the Creston National Fish Hatchery on Wednesday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)