Montana Supreme Court’s Unanimous Decision Voids Permit for Creston Water-Bottling Plant

Montana Supreme Court reverses the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) grant of commercial water right to Montana Artesian Water Company in Creston, MT

For seven long years, the attorneys at Ferguson & Coppes have worked diligently to protect water rights and hold the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation accountable for its decision making. This saga – the largest administrative proceeding ever before the Department – now is over as the clients of Ferguson & Coppes recently prevailed in their most recent appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.  

In 2015, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) issued a water use permit, allowing the Montana Artisan Water Company (MAWC) to produce up to 140,000 water bottles per hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week – roughly 1.2 billion, 20-ounce water bottles annually – by tapping into a groundwater aquifer along the Flathead River. 

Although MAWC insisted it would only use a fraction of the water-usage capacity assigned under the permitted right, the bottling operation attracted considerable attention, fueling concerns among neighbors and residents living near the Egan Slough property. Nonprofit conservation organizations Water for Flathead’s Future and Flathead Lakers, along with a list of residents, sued the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, challenging the two permits granted to MAWC that the state agencies issued — one for wastewater discharge and another for water usage.

All briefs having been submitted on November 30, 2022; our attorneys and clients eagerly awaited a response from the Montana Supreme Court, which came on May 16, 2023 in a 44-page unanimous decision.

The Supreme Court upheld a decision by a district court judge in Helena that said the state erred when it issued a permit to MAWC in 2017, citing that the company did not provide sufficient data, as required by DNRC’s own rules, for the agency to conduct a valid scientific analysis and justify issuing the permit. In its decision, the Supreme Court said DNRC made a mistake in its decision to approve the permit by committing errors of law during the processing of the application, including the failure to submit all the data and failure by the agency to fulfill its duty to analyze all potentially affected water sources. “The errors of law and process undermine confidence in the agency’s determinations … Consequently, this combination of deficiencies leaves us with the definite and firm conviction that, upon review of the whole record … a mistake was made.” Because there is so much water in the aquifer, the agency “assumed the proposed well would have little impact and passed it along without diligent review,” the Court wrote.

“Objectors marshalled extensive expert testimony and addressed a voluminous record to support their claims. Objectors uncovered the errors in DNRC’s review process that led the District Court, and now this Court, to reject the permit, despite usual deference owed to the agency. After extensive effort, Objectors are clearly the prevailing party.”

Flathead Lakers Inc. v. Mont. Dep’t of Natural Resources & Conservation

Counsel for Petitioners Graham Coppes said he was “thrilled” with both the substance and the tone of the Court’s decision. Beyond striking down DNRC’s flawed decision making process and scant hydrology, in a spectacular move out of pure equity for their effort and winning arguments, Montana’s high court awarded our clients their attorney’s fees. Following remand, Ferguson & Coppes, was able to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars for their clients (paid in settlement), both from the bottling company and the DNRC.

In a true “David vs. Goliath” story, Montana’s citizens were the true victors in a decision that will stand testament to the value of cherished and pristine water resources.

Read the Supreme Court Decision here.

See Flathead Beacon and Daily Inter Lake articles.