If water is becoming the new oil, the Flathead Valley could become the new Bakken. That’s what many people fear since news of a proposed water bottling plant outside of Kalispell broke earlier this spring.
Last week, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality hosted a public meeting to take comments on one aspect of the proposed facility. Comments are due this coming Monday.
At a potluck on Wednesday night, a group of local landowners opposed to the plant met to debrief after the meeting.
"Bleachers were full, people were all over the floor."
"There were no seats left."
That’s Pam and Dave Eikner. They live in Creston, a small town east of Kalispell where the Montana Artesian Water Company hopes to build a facility that could produce several million bottles of water a year. The company received preliminary approval for water rights from the state this spring.
It’s now waiting on approval of a permit to discharge rinse water from the plastic bottles the company plans to manufacture on site. This rinse water would be discharged into an unnamed tributary that leads to the Flathead River.
Monday’s meeting was about this discharge. A few hundred attended. More than 40 voiced strong opposition to the project.
Dave Eikner worries that some other impacts aren’t being considered.
"He didn't mention things like the dust and the impact on the county roads, air quality, how it would affect the plants and animals in the area."
The Eikners are part of Water for Flathead’s Future, a group that formed in April to block Montana Artesian Water Company’s proposed plant. At the group’s core are local landowners concerned they’ll see a dramatic change to their neighborhood if the proposed plant goes through.
"You could not find a more pastoral location to come in and ruin with an industrial plant. You can not."
Laurel Fullerton lives across the street from Lew and Laurel Weaver, who own Montana Artesian Water Company.
"The permit he's asking for is huge and it's Nestle-size permit."
710 acre feet, or nearly a quarter million gallons, annually, to be exact, which is less than half of the amount Nestle’s average bottling plant in California uses.
But all of these fears are being blown out of proportion, says Lew Weaver, who owns Montana Artesian Water.
"I ask people to look at the facts of our project, the real facts of our project, and not the myths."
Weaver says that he applied for the maximum water he could because that’s just what you do when you apply for water rights. He says he has no plans to run the facility at maximum capacity — it’ll be more like two trucks’ worth of water bottles shipping out each day, not the hundreds people who oppose it fear.
"It requires an infrastructure way, way, more than this corner of the valley would be proper to have in."
Weaver was the only person to speak in favor of the bottling plant at the DEQ’s public meeting Monday. He tried to assure people that the rinse water would be filtered before being discharged; that he is working with the county on a dust mitigation plan for the gravel roads leading to the plant; that the massive facility people fear just isn’t going to happen. He compared the amount of water he’s asking for to the amount of water it takes to irrigate 160 acres of alfalfa.
"It's not our plan to open up a massive, and tie in with some big corporation."
But that’s exactly what people fear if these permits are approved. Again, Laurel Fullerton.
"What Montana needs to decide is how they're going to manage their water resource."
Montana does have a few water bottling plants east of the Continental Divide. Water for Flathead’s Future is drafting legislation at the county level that would block commercial bottling in the Flathead Valley.
The DEQ is taking comments on the discharge permit through Monday. The agency will then review them before deciding whether to issue the permit as it is, modify it or deny it. There is no time limit for this process.
A spokesperson for the DEQ says permits are rarely denied, but acknowledges this particular case is “unusually controversial.” The DEQ has received about 100 comments so far.