A water-bottling plant creates a rift in Montana

Opponents say a proposal is tilting Flathead Valley development toward corporate interests.


From the air, the Flathead Valley looks like a patchwork quilt thrown over an unruly landscape. Hemmed in by mountain ranges on every side, Flathead Lake to the south and Canada a couple of hours to the north, the spread of squares and circles that straddles the Flathead River looks deliberate, as if somebody wanted it this way.

Somebody did. Does. In a part of the state flush with public lands, the private farms and ranches located among them are a source of pride as well as profit.

A few miles away, theres an airport and a Main Street and more than one motel. Farther away, tourists queue up for campsites at Glacier National Park. Floaters and fly-fishers crowd the rivers. But the neighborhood at Egan Slough is sleepy and isolated. Theres no fast way into town, especially if you get stuck behind a station wagon going exactly the speed limit: Its the one highway or, well, the highway.

At the end of several dusty stretches of unpaved road is the home of Steve Moore and Cindy Edstrom. A paddock and barn house llamas and alpacas, dogs roam and loll around the back deck, and the cats dine on stray mice al fresco. The view in any direction is spectacular in Montana’s lush May; in summer, it’s dustier, but no less grand.

But last year, Moore and Edstrom tried to hide this view of the Swan Range. They planted trees to block out the sight of just one building: a water-bottling plant in progress a mile away. It’s housed in a squat beige rectangle that’s barely noticeable against the distant, glorious peaks. But to Moore and Edstrom, its a daily reminder of the battle they’ve been fighting for almost two years.

“Can you imagine a toothache going on for a year?” asks Moore. “That’s what this is like.”

The status of their neighbor’s permit has been uncertain since early 2016, when public outcry forced the permitting agency to extend its public comment period. Outraged neighbors banded together to raise funds and awareness about what they saw as a threat to their land. Back then, the fight was primarily about the plant. Now, with months and hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the debate on both sides, it’s bigger than that. The embattled bottling plant has raised the specter of development. Something that might once have slipped through unnoticed has escalated into a battle for the soul of the Flathead, opponents say.

But whether opponents are fighting for tradition, against progress, or out of simple NIMBYism is a complicated question, one whose answer is as hard to pin down as water itself. 

Farmland stretches across the Flathead Valley surrounding the Egan Slough around the Flathead River.

Most of the Flathead Valley is still unzoned by the county. Mostly, that unzoned land is used for farming. But the lack of zoning means it doesn’t have to be. Enterprising landowners can consider turning their land to something besides crops or livestock.

One Kalispell landowner is trying to do just that. Instead of alchemizing water gradually into cherries or barley or beef, Lew Weaver — owner of the squat beige building — wants to pump water from the earth and bottle it for pantry shelves. 

It’s been more than two years since Weaver started. He needed two key government OKs: a water permit from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and a wastewater discharge permit from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Permission to take water and permission to put it back.

What began as an ordinary water-right permitting process — drill well, run tests, file application — stalled when it reached the public notice phase. Typically, the DNRC allows 30 days for public comment after neighbors are notified. The period was to expire in January 2016. A few days before it did, the department had to extend comment for two more months to accommodate the flood of objections. 

The problem, broadly, was scale. The plant Weaver described to his neighbors was a modest operation requiring a slower pump rate than a typical family home. The one described on his water permit application rivaled the pumping requirements for 700 acres of hay during the irrigation season, only on a year-round basis. Supporters say Weaver’s ambitions have been unfairly interpreted, noting that his discharge permit application had the same low number he’d originally quoted to his neighbors. Opponents see this as more evidence of duplicity. Under Montana law, the agencies work separately; there’s no statute to require these documents to match.

The crush of agitated neighbors who first showed up to complain in early 2016 was fervent but disorganized, “a flail,” as Edstrom says — but one that has since coalesced into community groups with funds, boards and objectives. One, called Yes! For Flathead Farms and Water, successfully gathered enough signatures to force a vote on expanding a local agriculturally zoned district to include Weaver’s land, potentially hobbling his plans for a bottling plant. Another, Water for Flathead’s Future, has led the fight against the DNRC’s preliminary decision, raising funds to hire legal representation and expert witnesses to testify against the permit. The proposed plant spurred at least two bills to slow it in the state Legislature this year and a lawsuit by Egan Slough residents against their county commissioners for failing to address public comment about the proposed zoning expansion.

The bills died in committee this spring; the lawsuit continues. Just two weeks before the DNRC hearing, the DEQ granted the Montana Artesian Water Company its discharge permit. 

Weaver’s neighbors say that they’re fighting for their water supply as much as their community’s character. The Flathead Valley is home to a prolific aquifer but also an annual rainfall of less than half the national average; concern and conflict about water persist here just as in the rest of the arid West. “There’s a visceral connection people have here with water that this is an affront to,” Steve Moore says. “To have one person … basically absconding with water under one’s own property, under one’s own feet, and then socializing the costs.”

The opponents’ vision of the consequences is grim. They see the patchwork of crops and cattle interrupted by plastic bottles in heavy crates, the gravel roads and narrow highway choked with industrial traffic. Steve Harvey, Weaver’s neighbor on Egan Slough, imagines the artesian springs on his property withering away, drawn underground by the cone of depression radiating out from Weaver’s well. Steve Moore, a mile away from Weaver, fears being forced to overhaul his entire well system, designed to work with artesian pressure, if the water table on his property drops. Residents in every direction dread breathing in even more dust than the roads cough up already.

They worry what will happen to nearby roads if they’re clogged with traffic and weighed down by pallets of water. They worry about effects on the river nearby and the lake farther south, already taxed by tourists and the threat of invasive species. They wonder what will be next if this permit succeeds and billions of bottles start flowing out of the valley.

The Montana Artesian Water Company facility on Lew Weaver’s property in Creston, Montana. Opponents have tried to block its development by changing the property's zoning regulations.
Nicky Oullet/Montana Public Radio

The ownership of water is codified in Montana’s 1972 Constitution, which says that all of it, from glacial runoff to lake contents to the mist that gathers inside the bowl of Missoula on inversion mornings, belongs to the state. As in most of the West, access to that water is doled out on a first-come, first-served basis, with the DNRC as arbiter. It’s meant to be simple and fair: Junior users can’t impede senior users’ access to their full allotments.

The reality, of course, is more complicated. Different uses of water have different consumption percentages: Flood irrigation returns about 65 percent of water drawn from wells back into the soil, for example, while pivot irrigation returns about 15 percent. Bottling returns none; the liquid riches disappear into plastic packages. Then there’s timing: Irrigation typically draws water only during dry months, leaving time for aquifers to refill. Affected as much by climate as by contracts, Montana’s primary water users must respond to the environment, even as they try to manage it.

The bottled water business doesn’t. This is a key concern: not just the amount requested by Weaver, but the fact that, once granted, it’s free from the constraints that confine his neighbors’ consumption to certain months.

The total requested on Weaver’s permit is 710.53 acre-feet per year, 588.08 of them bottled. That’s roughly 725 million one-liter bottles. Weaver insists he won’t use that much; he just wants a small family operation to pass down to his kids. The numbers suggest that the goal is not growth — not right now — but rather the potential for it. Weaver says he doesn’t want to operate a giant bottling plant, filling dozens of trucks with millions of bottles. But he requested enough water to do exactly that. 

“When your water is threatened, it’s a game-changer.” – Steve Harvey, Lew Weaver’s neighbor.

Weaver’s opponents suggest that the gap between what Weaver wants to use and what he’s asked for may not be strictly legal. Statute and case law require the requested amount of water to match the applicant’s needs. Weaver has been vocal that his does not. But his consultant, Darryl James, emphasized that it’s typical after drilling a well to apply for as much water as it can yield, then take years to “perfect,” or finalize, the amount the applicant plans to use. He says the smaller DEQ permit proves that Weaver has no plans to build a behemoth. But opponents aren’t convinced. The possibility of a future huge bottling plant worries people who still plan to be here 20 years from now. 

At the tense three-day DNRC hearing in September, the prevailing message appeared to be that this is just how things work. The application amount 15 times higher than the applicant’s stated plans? Standard procedure. The gaps left on statutorily required application forms? Same deal. And in a bureaucratic obstacle course spread out across different cities with sometimes distinct, sometimes overlapping job responsibilities, no one seems to know who’s directly responsible.

Weaver’s website — just below several paragraphs that highlight just how much more water other businesses consume — indicates that his facility won’t be equipped to bottle as much water as he’s asked for. Instead of the 24 hours of daily operations proposed in the application, the website offers a humble 10, only five days a week. The lines of phantom trucks feared by Weaver’s neighbors are reduced to a modest six.

The neighbors are unwilling to take him at his word. After all, the 30-gallons-a-minute operation he describes is nowhere to be found in his DNRC permit paperwork. And where water rights are pivotal to squeezing a living from the earth, nobody is willing to gamble on someone else’s promise. 

“You can’t just hope that he’s not going to do it or hope that the roads won’t be able to carry the water,” Steve Harvey says. “When your water is threatened, it’s a game-changer.”

The quiet town would be a terrible choice for a major bottling plant, locals say. And nobody really thinks that the Montana Artesian Water Company will become a bottling behemoth in Lew Weaver’s hands. Still, they’re concerned about what could happen if it moves into better-funded, more ambitious ones. 

Other dots on other maps have shown what that future might look like.

Most conflicts over industrial bottling are muddy. The environmental effects of billions of extracted gallons go up against jobs, money, institutional support in low-income areas. Private and corporate property rights clash. Local neighborhoods don’t always fight the big companies, but the difficulty of defining harm done by mass water extraction, let alone clear recourse for it, means any battles are fought entirely uphill.

In one proposed Nestlé site in Oregon, county voters banned commercial water bottling in 2016, pushing back at the corporate giant’s years-long attempt to tap a state-owned spring in the area. In response, the company simply hopped the river, proposing instead to build a plant in a poorer town on the other side. That proposal was denied — but the ease with which a major corporation can simply go next door is evident. Locals end up in a defensive stance, lacking corporate lawyers or money to pay them. And even their votes may not be enough to counter big business; in spring 2017, despite the 2016 county ban on bottling, city leaders in Cascade Locks were still considering ways for Nestlé to proceed.

In another water-rich town in Michigan, where Nestlé is established and hoping to expand, local complaints about reduced trout populations and shrunken streams are met by corporate scientists claiming that bottling is harmless. It’s unreasonable to dismiss scientific conclusions wholesale because of who funds the research — but there are enough discrepancies to justify some skepticism. A New York Times article in May described raw data held back from outside scientists, state tests for ecosystem damage second-guessed, community decisions challenged. Even where there’s insufficient evidence for legal action, there’s enough to fuel community fears.

Nestlé is not a presence in the Flathead Valley. But the prospect of development looms over the patchwork of farms and ranches. The fight isn’t just about this one plant; it’s about a future that locals are suddenly afraid they cannot control.

Tension and spin have colored so much of the debate over the proposed plant that the truth has come to seem increasingly elusive. But state agencies don’t have dominion over philosophical differences. The argument boils down to pragmatic concerns: the amount of water legally available for consumption, the aquifer supplying the well, and the discrepancy between application and aspiration.

The locals see the stakes as statewide, as global, even — a conflict not between neighbors but between corporate interests and community governance. It’s not just about an entrepreneurial neighbor opting for bottles over cattle, they say. It’s about the will of a region being overridden by industry and one man’s dollars.

“Our concern isn’t this well,” said one agitated resident at the September hearing. “It’s the 10 behind him.”

It doesn’t help that facts remain in dispute too, chief among them whether Weaver’s well reaches into the deep alluvial aquifer under the Flathead Valley or hits an intermediate layer, where its pull would be felt more acutely by neighboring landowners.

Mikel Siemens, a hydrogeological consultant working with Water for Flathead’s Future, is certain Weaver’s well doesn’t reach the deepest layer of groundwater. The well’s placement in the deep aquifer is a key part of the DNRC’s reasoning that water is available to allot to Weaver. Surface and groundwater connections to shallower layers would require different analysis and raise more questions.

A cross-section of the valley’s groundwater layers might show why the deep aquifer matters so much. Under the shallow aquifer — which connects with streams and floods with snowmelt in the spring — are layers of clay, silt, sand, gravel. The bigger the chunks of earth at each level, the bigger the gaps between them — gaps that are filled with water. (Think of digging in beach sand: eventually, you will hit water.) The bigger the gaps, generally, the easier it is for water to move through them.

In an aquifer with plenty of water and gaps big enough for it to move through smoothly, pumps can draw lots of water, quickly, without affecting nearby wells too much. When there are tighter gaps, there’s slower recharge. Less available water means less to go around. In the Flathead Valley, the deep aquifer is where the treasure is. That’s where most industrial and agricultural wells reach to get as much as they need without drying up their neighbors.

But unlike a simplified, color-coded diagram, the real valley floor is uneven. Its glacial history deposited silt and clay unevenly, striping the valley floor with layers of variously productive aquifer. It’s less like a cake — consistent at different depths, no matter where you stick the toothpick — and more like a chicken you have to prod in exactly the right spot to get the temperature.

“It gets murky,” Siemens says. “Everybody likes to say, drill 200 feet, youre in the deep. But that's not the case. You have to treat it as a specific, looking for those characteristics that will give you assurance.”

Payton Gardner, a hydrogeologist at the University of Montana, sums it up more succinctly: “Unless you want to do a really big study beforehand, it's going to be suck it and see.”

Weaver’s application for 710 acre-feet sounds extreme to locals. If Weaver built to capacity, the aboveground repercussions probably would be as bad as his opponents fear; there’s just no easy way to move millions of pounds of product. But in the Flathead Valley, 710 acre-feet of water really is just a drop in the bucket. A 2011 study by the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology estimated total pumping from the deep alluvial aquifer at 23,500 acre-feet each year. They estimated inflow at 213,000. If Weaver’s well really reaches into the deep aquifer, the water is there for the taking.

Cindy Edstrom, who hid her mountain view to avoid looking at Weaver’s plant, hates that idea. It’d be one thing if that water were going in tankers to someone who needed it, she says. But selling it by the ounce at gas stations is unconscionable. “This is mining for profit,” she says.

Well, yes. But the Flathead Valley wouldn’t be the first postcard-perfect Montana site to be plumbed for profit. Just a couple of hours away and similarly surrounded by mountain views, the city of Butte sits on the largest Superfund site in the nation, the legacy of the copper barons who helped electrify the country. Montana’s beauty has never insulated it from harm.

“There’s no way to stop the inexorable press of the future.” – Steve Moore, opponent of the water bottle facility.

The obvious environmental cost of Butte’s copper operations makes it an easy target. Many are equally horrified by the thought of bottling the Flathead’s water for the throwaway convenience of some faraway consumers. Yet ranching also sucks up thousands of pounds of water for every pound of beef, and industrial agriculture dumps fertilizer runoff into channels that clog with algae. Beer, plastic, burgers, gas: the elements that make up a perfect summer barbecue cause no less accumulated harm than a water bottling plant might, though they may be dispersed and invisible. Convenience has always had a price.

Lots of the locals say that if Weaver’s permit had stayed modest, he’d already be in business.

“We even let him put the building up because it looked like a 30-gallon-a-minute building,” Harvey says. “He would have been bottling water right now! He could have had the bottling plant he said he wanted and nobody would have said ‘boo’ about it. Nobody did!”

More than one opponent of the plant said that it’s not only the numbers that give them pause; it’s what they see as Lew Weaver’s refusal to be straight with them. They just don’t understand why he told them one number and wrote another on his permit forms, or why they had to learn about the plant from the DNRC’s public notice. It’s even possible that this escalating conflict emerged out of a misunderstanding, not malice. It could be much ado over not much, though it’s unlikely at this point that such an explanation would do. And Weaver himself is offering no more explanations. At the hearing in September, he was on the agenda to testify — an opportunity for answers that many anticipated eagerly — but day two opened with an announcement that he couldn’t make it to the stand after all. Later reports indicated that medical problems kept Weaver away. 

On the phone, Weaver has been pleasant but circumspect. When asked to confirm some basic details, he demurs, saying he’s become “gun-shy” of talking to the press after seeing reports he calls inaccurate. After the “regulatory process” is over, he says, he can comment.

It’s been more than two years since Weaver first filed his application; the well is drilled; the plant is built. Lawyers and fees are eating up an investment that should already be paying off. Backing down might have been an option a year ago, but now — “That bridge is burned,” Edstrom says. “One bottle is going to be —” 

“More than enough,” Moore finishes.

But it may be a long time yet before the bottles appear. The DNRC hearing to decide the permit’s immediate future will officially close on October 31, when both sides must submit their closing briefs. The agency will have 90 days from that point to make its final determination. A legal battle will almost certainly follow, no matter who comes out the winner.

“This is all basically expensive staged theater,” Moore says. “Either way, someone will sue.”

Weaver’s opponents are no longer flailing, and they’re not falling back. This time, with this application, they found enough concrete footholds to challenge the DNRC’s decision. But whatever the outcome, it won’t stop other landowners’ ambitions from creeping closer to this bucolic patchwork. It might not be this year, or this neighborhood, or this industry next time. But the pursuit of economic security has moved mountains before. It’s the same thing the people fighting the plant want for their children, too. It’s the instinct environmentalists call upon when they imagine a collective future. But time and again, what belongs to the many gets eaten by the few.

As determined as he is to keep fighting, Moore is resigned to the inevitable.

“There’s no way to stop the inexorable press of the future,” he says. “Industry will come to the Flathead Valley. Pollution will come to the Flathead Valley. Population will come to the Flathead Valley. This is the Wild West of the 1800s played out in the 21st century. The future will come. But it would probably be beneficial for all of us if it followed the rules.”

Olga Kreimer is a journalist and essayist based in Missoula, Montana. You can find more of her work at www.kreimero.com

This story was produced as part of the Crown Reporting Project, at the University of Montana.