Creston farmer plans bottling plant - Water For Flathead's Future
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Creston farmer plans bottling plant

By SAM WILSON/Daily Inter Lake

On one of the sprawling farms along the Flathead River’s Egan Slough, the Montana Artesian Water Co. is quietly working to open a plant that could bottle as much as 191.6 million gallons of groundwater per year.
The site of the proposed facility is less than two miles southwest of Creston and about a mile from the slough.
Creston farmer Lew Weaver owns the company, which was incorporated in Flathead County in October 2014.
“We made an application to all the regulatory agencies pursuant to the rules and regulations to do bottled water, and we are in the regulatory process and are waiting for the results of that,” Weaver said in an interview Monday.
He declined to elaborate on the company’s plans, including hiring impacts and operations, but said he would provide more information once the requisite permits are finalized.
According to a preliminary water rights permit issued Jan. 14 by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the company’s single well could withdraw from a deep underground aquifer up to 231.5 million gallons per year.
Of that, it could bottle and sell up to 191.6 million gallons per year, the equivalent of 2 billion 12-ounce water bottles. The rest would be used for rinsing bottles and equipment and for on-site tap water.
Emily Gillespie, an environmental engineer with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said the plant would produce its own water bottles from sheets of plastic it brings into the facility. The process requires extruding the plastic and blowing air into the new bottles. They would then be rinsed and filled with treated well water.
The company’s one-page website describes its drinking water as containing “a light blend of minerals that imparts a refreshing and satiating taste,” including small amounts of calcium, magnesium and potassium.
Officials with the DNRC say the plant has generated substantial attention from nearby residents, many of whom worry the proposed water withdrawal could affect their private wells.
The department’s review of the water rights permit application found the plant would cause “no adverse impacts” to other water rights in the area.
The owners of 38 water rights within 1.5 miles of the proposed plant received notices of the decision, kicking off a 45-day period in which anyone can object to the new water right.
Objectors must pay a $25 processing fee to the department, and formal objections are due March 11.
“Basically, at this point, it’s been determined it’s good to go,” department water resources specialist Nate Ward said Friday. “If no one files an objection, we’ll issue” the water-rights permit.
A finding of “no adverse impacts” to existing water users doesn’t mean there will be no impacts.
That legal determination rests on whether the withdrawal will lower the aquifer’s water table below the perforated intakes for existing rights holders’ wells.
Based on the state’s hydrological modeling, which uses what deputy water resources office manager Kathy Olsen called a “scientific worst-case scenario,” it will not.
“In this case, there were no identified wells that were going to be drawn down below their perforated zone,” Ward said.
The model identified one well 635 feet from the proposed plant’s well for which the water table is expected to drop by 20.5 feet — the largest drawdown.
The closest the new well would bring any other permitted wells to drying up was one private well that extends 15 feet below the water table. The drawdown would be 3.5 feet, leaving an 11.5-foot water column above it.
The lower water table could cause a drop in water pressure for some rights holders, and Olsen noted that well owners may have to lower their pumps below the new water level or upgrade to a more powerful pump as a result.
The other caveat is that the state can only model wells for which a legal water right exists.
“That applies to existing, legal water users only,” Ward said. “With wells that can be kind of a big thing, because there’s a lot of wells out there that don’t have legal documentation. … We can’t protect your water use if you don’t have a water right.”
Many of the phone calls Ward has fielded in the past couple of weeks came from well owners without legal water rights, and he said several responded by getting their wells permitted.
As with all water rights in Montana, the company’s water right would be subject to call by senior water rights holders during a water shortage. However, the department does not enforce calls, and should the company, or any junior rights holder, refuse to ratchet down their use, the matter must be settled in court.
According to the department’s preliminary determination to grant the permit, the 3,000-foot-thick Deep Aquifer underlies a 300-square mile area including the Flathead Valley and neighboring areas.
The aquifer is refilled by the Flathead River and Flathead Lake, and in the area where the well is located, it rests under an impermeable layer of earth — meaning water doesn’t travel between the Deep Aquifer and the shallow surface aquifer above.
Because the well won’t be pulling from the surface aquifer, Ward said it won’t have an impact on any wetlands.
There is also some precedent to the water company’s proposed annual withdrawal of more than 710 acre-feet of water.
One private well within three miles of the proposed plant is permitted to pump 711 acre-feet per year for irrigation, and the Creston National Fish Hatchery has a permit to pump up to 645 acre-feet per year at one of its wells.
The department’s environmental assessment found the plant would have “no significant impacts” on fish or wildlife.
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the fish hatchery, has begun drafting a letter outlining potential concerns.
“We recognize there could be impacts to the Creston National Fish Hatchery from this proposal. We continue to analyze what those might be,” said agency spokeswoman Sabrina Baker, who declined to elaborate on Friday.
State Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, who represents the district extending north to Creston, said he also has fielded concerned calls from one of his constituents in the area.
“There are some real concerns about the amounts of water and the impact this will have on that little agricultural corner of the valley,” Keenan said Monday. “My concern is more that we have a more consistent and thorough environmental assessment process, not something that differs from agency to agency and that doesn’t include the locally impacted agencies.”
He said the Creston and Bigfork fire departments, schools and the Bigfork water district should have been notified.
While the water rights permitting process includes a formal environmental assessment, the permit is issued based on six separate criteria, not the outcome of the assessment.
Keenan also has heard concerns about the potential dust from heavy truck traffic transporting bottled water from the plant.
Flathead County Public Works Director Dave Prunty said Friday the county would ideally enter into a dust abatement cost-sharing agreement with the company as it does with local logging companies.
Under the agreements, the county and private haulers split the cost of treating unpaved roads with magnesium chloride, a salt that retains moisture and keeps dust levels down.
“If someone would be doing a sizable amount of hauling, we’d be interested in them applying through our dust cost-share program,” Prunty said. “Typically businesses like logging companies, they want to be good neighbors and have controlled it in some way.”
The county can’t force the company to do so, however, and enforcement would be up to the Department of Environmental Quality.
The plant still needs permits from the state Department of Environmental Quality for treating the bottled water and discharging wastewater into a Flathead River tributary.
Matt Kent, an environmental scientist for the agency, said Friday he expects to release the draft discharge permit for public comment in about a month. There would be at least a 30-day public comment period, and potentially a public hearing before the final permit is issued.
“We have certainly done that in the past, held hearings when there has been a sort of critical mass of interest,” he said Friday.
Geothermal heating water would be discharged about 1,300 feet from the river, a maximum of 33,358 gallons per day under the proposed permit.
Wastewater treated after rinsing the bottles and equipment would account for another 2,640 gallons per day.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at