Questions raised about bottling plant

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A water-bottling plant is proposed on Lew Weaver’s property near Egan Slough. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

As news trickled out that a water bottling plant was in the works next to Egan Slough, a flurry of emails and phone calls started creating a stir in and around the farming community of Creston.

Jean Rachubka, a retiree who lives across the horseshoe-shaped water body that lies next to the Flathead River, said she was caught off guard when she learned of the proposal from a farmer down the road on Friday.

“They sent out emails to another neighbor, and we’re just doing a sort of email hotline right now,” she said. “Lew Weaver might not like it, but it’s not going to be so quiet, I hope, after this.”

Weaver is the owner of Montana Artesian Water Co. and is proposing to build the plant about two miles southwest of Creston. He applied for a water rights permit from the state last June.

The permit would allow the company to pump 710 acre-feet of water per year, and to produce the equivalent of 2 billion 12-ounce bottles of water annually.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation issued a preliminary permit and public notices in January, but many nearby residents first learned of the proposal within the last week.

Rachubka and her neighbors are concerned that the plant — which would be one of the largest consumers of groundwater in the immediate area — will reduce the availability of water they get from their wells.

Charles Tarpley began spreading the word Sunday night after getting a call from a neighbor.

He’s the president of the Wakewood Acres Homeowners Association, and while the residential area is 1.5 miles east of Creston, he feels he should have been notified by the state.

“Just how far-reaching is this? I think it probably goes beyond the people who are within a mile and a half of the well,” Tarpley said, adding that residents in the community reported wells drying up during last year’s drought.

Permitted well owners within a 1.5-mile radius received notices of the preliminary permit in January, and a legal advertisement was placed in the Daily Inter Lake’s classified section Jan. 27.

Objections to the permit require a $25 fee and are due Friday.

The department’s Kalispell office has the discretion to extend the 45-day objection period to 60 days.

Water rights holders can pick up an objection form at the local office on Timberwolf Parkway in Kalispell or visit dnrc.mt.gov/divisions/water/water-rights/docs/forms/611.pdf.

State officials at the office note that the plant’s well, if permitted, would likely lower the water table for surrounding wells and could force some water rights holders to lower their pumps or purchase new ones.

The state found that the proposed withdrawals wouldn’t require any existing rights holders to drill new wells.

But John Tubbs, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said Tuesday that even if it did, that isn’t necessarily enough to qualify as an “adverse effect” — one of the standards used to deny a new water right permit.

“It’s a test of reasonableness. Essentially, if the senior water rights holder can reasonably exercise their right, then it is not adverse effect, even if it requires a deepening of the well,” he said. “It’s not reasonable for you to stop all other diversions from the aquifer if your well is just at the top of that aquifer.”

As long as the senior water rights holder can still access groundwater farther down, state statute compels the department to permit the new water use.

Rachubka said she and her neighbors plan to file objections to the company’s preliminary permit, but she isn’t optimistic about their chances.

After the department receives an objection, it reviews any new information to determine whether it could impact any of the six criteria used to review the permit.

At least one objection this week will come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mark Maskill, manager of the nearby Creston National Fish Hatchery, on Tuesday declined to comment on the specifics of the objection notice, which is still being finalized by the federal agency.

But he noted the hatchery uses a substantial amount of water from the aquifer. It is permitted to withdraw up to 645 acre-feet per year from the same aquifer the bottling plant would use.

“Well water is pathogen free, so it’s very useful and ideal for rearing our fry, our smaller fish, to ensure they remain in good health,” Maskill said.

The bottling-plant proposal has raised environmental concerns from the Flathead Lakers, a local nonprofit organization that works to protect water quality and ecosystem health in Flathead Lake’s drainage.

The group’s executive director, Robin Steinkraus, said she first heard of the project last week.

“We understand that perhaps the water rights permit doesn’t allow for consideration of some issues, but we think that needs to have evaluation of other things, beyond just impacts on existing wells,” she said.

The group sent a letter to the state resource agency on Friday, expressing concerns over potential impacts to the river, nearby wetlands and aquatic life, including federally threatened bull trout.

As part of its review process, the department conducts a brief environmental assessment, but Tubbs said that is only to identify whether a water right could have serious environmental impacts. Such a finding would have elevated the process to a more thorough environmental review.

“While [the Montana Environmental Policy Act] helps me to understand the project, the statute gives me virtually no discretion on issuing the permit based on environmental effects,” he said.

Since the 1990s, the Montana Legislature has weakened the state environmental law’s bearing on the water rights permitting process, he added.

“I think there are legitimate concerns out there, but often those are best addressed by the local government,” Tubbs said. “Often, the Legislature reminds us that the permitting processes are defined in the statute, and the requirements under MEPA are procedural.”

A separate permit to allow the plant to discharge treated wastewater is currently under review by the Department of Environmental Quality.

A draft permit could be released within the next month and will include at least a 30-day period for public comments.

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

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