UPDATE: Friday, September 22: The public hearing record remains open pending closing briefs from counsel and Montana Artesian Water Company owner Lew Weaver's testimony. Weaver's testimony is optional to the proceedings.
The DNRC's 90-day decision period will not commence until the record closes. Hearing examiner David Vogler will meet on a conference call with the parties' counsel on Wednesday, Sept. 27 to determine next steps in this matter.
(Original post continues below)
Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has wrapped up its third and final day of a hearing on a proposed water bottling plant in Creston in the Flathead Valley. Creston resident Lew Weaver’s Montana Artesian Water Company applied for a permit to draw and bottle groundwater almost two years ago.
There are concerns about the connectivity of water in the region, possible effects on neighboring wells, and the procedures followed by the DNRC in their preliminary determination to grant the permit earlier this year. MTPR’s Olga Kreimer has been following the story, she spoke with News Director Eric Whitney.
Eric Whitney: Olga, what exactly will this hearing decide?
Olga Kreimer: The focus here is very specific, it’s to decide if the DNRC made the right call in its preliminary decision to grant the permit in January. There’s a number of factors the DNRC has to consider for a water right application and that’s what was discussed during the part of the hearing I attended.
EW: What’s at stake here?
OK: The company’s plans are to draw and sell about 30 gallons of water per minute, but the water permit they’ve applied for is significantly more than that. Some people are concerned about that discrepancy, though the folks on the side of the water company say it’s standard to apply for, basically, the amount of water the well can yield and then spend year perfecting that amount and finalizing the right at the end of that period. It's worth noting the water the company could draw if they use their full permit is about what it would take to irrigate 700 acres of alfalfa per year. So it's a lot, but it's not unique in the valley. The company's consultant told me Wednesday the the owner Lew Weaver has no intention of expanding to that degree, but people are hoping for something on paper that says that too.
EW: What's your sense for how people in the Flathead Valley feel about the proposed water bottling plant?
OK: Lots of neighbors and other locals from across the valley are worried that there are no real checks and balances in place to stop weaver from deciding to leverage this bigger right to entice a bigger bottling company to the region, for example, which would really significantly change the quality of life there. They're also worried about other people following suit if this right does go through. It's mostly an agricultural area — pretty quiet — with tourist spots all down Highway 35, and people are worried about what would happen if that went away.
EW: During the hearing did Lew Weaver himself testify?
OK: No, he was supposed to start the day off on Wednesday, and he was absent on that day. I heard from folks at the hearing on Thursday that he was absent then too, so it looks like he's not going to testify. It sounds like his hydrologist Roger Noble testified instead.
EW: Can you give me a summary of what his argument is for why his proposed water bottling plant should be allowed to go through?
OK: The argument that Lew's side makes is that they're following the rules, really down to the letter. That they're asking for a water right that's entirely available in that region and that they don't have any plans to turn this area into an industrial wasteland. Really it's just this guy who wants to make a little more money in his retirement on this land that he owns. He hopes to continue living there. So his argument is really that he's facing a sort of irrational push-back in his desire to make use of this water that is available, according to him
EW: Now that the hearings wrapped up, what are the next steps?
OK: Now the DNRC has up to 90 days to issue their final decision. Pretty much everyone I've talked to says the side that doesn't get its way will appeal that decision in district court, so this fight could drag on for months. In the mean time, the company has gotten their other permit that they need to start operations, which is a discharge permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality. That application was for the size of about a home well, so that seems to uphold his [Weaver's] point that he really is just looking to make a small bottling operation and not really the behemoth that everybody's really scared of
EW: Olga Kreimer, thanks for joining us.