Farmer explains water-bottling plans

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Lew Weaver holds a map of the water in the Flathead Valley at the Applied Water Consulting office in Kalispell on Wednesday. Weaver is proposing to pump and bottle water at his Creston farm. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

While many Creston residents were surprised to hear about a proposed bottled water plant in the area, the man behind the plant says he was also surprised by the local response.

Lew Weaver, a Creston farmer, is currently working through the permitting process to open a facility that could bottle up to 191.6 million gallons of groundwater per year.

“There seems to be a lot of interest in the valley in our project, more so than we had thought,” Weaver said Wednesday. “We’re not trying to hide anything. It’s a business that would create jobs in the Flathead.”

He said he has reached out to many of his neighbors and has received a mix of concern and support. But he said he believes most of those concerns are founded on a lack of information.

Weaver and his wife bought their 350-acre ranch from the Pederson family in 1989. They raise cattle and grow hay, wheat, barley, peas and lentils.

With unpredictable crop prices, however, Weaver said he got the idea of trying to sell some of the water under his property more than a decade ago.

“Sometimes you have to look for additional alternatives for income to survive,” he said.

About three years ago, he began working with Applied Water Consulting, a Kalispell-based company that has handled the permitting process for the proposed facility.

They acquired a permit from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to drill the well and test-pumped it for three days, gathering data from additional monitoring wells to estimate the impacts, over time, to other legal wells within a roughly 6.5-mile radius.

In January, the department issued Weaver a preliminary water rights permit after determining that the increased demand on the underground aquifer would not have significant impacts on any neighboring legal wells.

The deadline for affected water rights holders to object to the permit is Friday, after which the state will address any objections and determine whether they warrant denial or modification of the permit.

In the middle of Weaver’s field, a tan 10,500-square-foot building houses the well, along with a roughly 60-foot bottling line, mechanical and geothermal rooms and office and storage space.

Weaver said he chose a paint color that would not distract from the aesthetics of the surrounding farms and ranches.

“There has not been a complaint about our building,” he said. “We’ve even had positive comments from people.”

Inside, the well water would be pumped through a filter to remove sediment and ultraviolet light would kill any bacteria present.

The facility would manufacture water bottles by blowing warm air into plastic sheets and rinsing them with water, a process that Applied Water Consulting hydrologist Roger Noble said will not generate any air pollution.

Because Weaver’s enterprise is are considered a water treatment facility by the state, the Department of Public Health and Human Resources also would need to license the plant as a food-grade facility — the final regulatory step before Weaver could begin production.

Wastewater from the bottle rinsing must be treated before it can be discharged into a tributary of the Flathead River.

Matt Kent, an environmental engineer with the Department of Environmental Quality said Wednesday the company submitted a discharge permit application estimating the outflow’s pollutant contents.

While Kent is analyzing for a range of regulated chemicals including chlorine, fluoride, sulfates, nitrites and nitrates, he said that doesn’t necessarily mean the effluent would contain any of those chemicals.

The department will release the draft permit in about one month.

Local environmental groups have expressed concerns over whether the geothermal system’s outflow could impact aquatic life downstream.

But Brad Bennett, another hydrologist with Applied Water Consulting, said the geothermal system would cool the groundwater it uses, and the tributary into which it would discharge is fed by the same aquifer.

“There are a lot of species that are temperature-sensitive, but because the water temperature being put in is cooler than [the groundwater temperature], it mitigates a lot of that concern,” Bennett said.

No further construction is needed for Weaver to open the facility. He plans to begin production in a limited capacity and any future expansion would be in response to demand.

In the beginning, the facility would operate 60 hours a week, withdrawing water at a rate of about 25 gallons per minute. That’s about 4.68 million gallons per year.

But Weaver’s company could expand significantly if demand for the water is high enough. His water rights permit would allow the company to withdraw up to 231.5 million gallons per year, of which it could bottle 191.6 million gallons.

Initially, he expects he would hire four full-time employees to run the plant. Running it at maximum capacity, he would need up to 15 employees.

The planned traffic route for trucks leaving the facility extends north from the building, through Weaver’s property to Egan Slough Road, then about 1.5 miles to the junction with Montana 35.

Weaver declined to estimate how much truck traffic would result, but said he has already agreed to a cost-sharing dust abatement plan with the county.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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