Flathead Valley residents handed a decisive victory to opponents of Montana Artesian Water Co., voting in favor of expanding the Egan Slough Zoning District to include the area where the bottling plant is located near Creston.
A citizens group called Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water led the successful ballot initiative in an attempt to block the bottling plant operation.
The expansion of the zoning district — effective immediately following Tuesday’s primary election — brings the plant into an area that is zoned primarily for agricultural and residential land use.
Mona Charles, a steering committee members of the citizens group, said the resounding victory “is democracy in action.
“I think everybody who voted knows how important water is, and how important it is to the future of the Flathead,” Charles said in a phone interview from Buffalo Wild Wings, where Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water volunteers held a victory party Tuesday night.
“This is really grass roots, saying this is important to me and I’m going to protect our valley, our water and our way of life,” Charles said.
Charles said that as she made phone calls to get out the vote, she was energized by the level of commitment from area residents. While it took an “army” of volunteers to inform the electorate about the ballot initiative, “just as important were the people who knew the importance of their vote,” she said.
“It’s our water. It doesn’t belong to one man to scoop up and ship out,” Charles continued. “It’s our power that came through.”
Montana Artesian Water Co. holds a permit to withdraw 710 acre-feet of water — about 230 million gallons annually from the aquifer in the Egan Slough area. A separate permit to discharge wastewater into the Flathead River would keep the company’s operations at a relatively small scale until a permit is granted for more discharge.
Whether or not the expanded zoning district would shut down the plant remains a cloudy issue. The zoning district regulations say “at the time a zoning district to which these regulations are applied is created,” any nonconforming facility “may continue in the matter and to the extent that it existed or was being used at the time of adoption of these regulations.”
Mayre Flowers, a volunteer with the citizens group and former director of Citizens for a Better Flathead, said she hopes the issue of grandfathering the bottling plant operation is “somewhat of a moot issue because he hasn’t started operation.”
Montana Artesian spokesman Darryl James told the Daily Inter Lake in late May the company is nearly ready to start bottling water. The plant’s production line has been assembled and the company is awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. James said at that point he expected to receive the approval in a matter of weeks.
Charles acknowledged that despite the successful initiative to expand the zoning district “this isn’t necessarily the end of the struggle.
“But it does illustrate this is something that won’t go away quietly,” she added.
Another grassroots group called Water for Flathead’s Future and the Flathead Lakers are appealing the state’s water-use permit granted to Montana Artesian.
Two years ago the Egan Slough Community sued the Flathead County commissioners over their denial of a petition to expand the Egan Slough Zoning District. In March a district judge ordered the commissioners to reconsider the public comments and their rationale for denying the petition. In late May the commissioners reviewed the audio recordings of a public hearing and their discussion, but did not vote again on the matter and took it under advisement.
Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.