County planning still processing Madison Food Park proposal; water rights process not yet begun

The proposed Madison Food Park would be constructed on a roughly 3,000 acre property on the southern side of Highway 89 between Great Falls and Belt.

The property is zoned agricultural rural currently and under the county zoning regulations, the proposed meat processing plant would be allowable with a Special Use Permit.

Brian Clifton, county planning director, said that the SUP process allows the county’s Zoning Board of Adjustment to attach reasonable conditions to the project, which typically include approvals from the Montana Department of Transportation, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, health departments and others depending on the type of project.

“Our role is to produce a document that covers all the issues, or those we have control over,” Clifton said. “We want to gather the information, let people speak and let the ZBOA make their determination. Our job is not to weigh in on whether we think it’s a good idea or a bad idea.”

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The public is also able to submit comments during a hearing and in writing. So far, the county has received about 30 written comments from about 20 people/couples.

Since the developer is amending their application, staff has not yet set a date for a public hearing on the project.

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The ZBOA takes the staff review and recommendation and the public comment into consideration when making their determination.

Projects of principal uses in their zoning areas can get permits over the counter at the planning office and Clifton said they issue 180-200 of those annually.

The county has received about a dozen other SUP applications this year, but for smaller projects, Clifton said.

The last projects in recent memory of similar magnitude were the coal plant and the solar generating fields, Clifton said.

The special uses are those that could be allowed under county zoning rules, but are subject to more review and the ZBOA is able to attach conditions.

There’s no guarantee, Clifton said, that anything in a special use process will be approved. 

The process also accounts for mitigation plans of any potential negative impacts, Clifton said.

If the developer believes there are unreasonable conditions attached, there is an appeal process.

So far, the Madison Food Park developers haven’t started formal discussions with MDT, DEQ or the Department of Natural Resources and that’s not uncommon since it’s still early in the process.

Clifton said many developers first go through the zoning process to see what conditions will be attached or if the zoning is approved before beginning other time-consuming and costly processes with state agencies.

“Zoning can be one of the most difficult hurdles,” Clifton said.

The application for the Madison Food Park was first submitted in August and Clifton said the county planning staff is still processing the application and will continue to do so once the amended application is received.

Much of that work includes determining which other local, state and federal agencies would need to be involved, Clifton said.

Water Usage

According to the initial application documents, Madison Food Park developers are planning three to four wells, tapping into the Madison Aquifer.

That has raised alarm among some locals.

For any wells to be drilled, the developers would still need to go through the water right permitting process since the existing water rights on the property are not sufficient for the proposed operation.

The former property owner, who is still listed on the water right documents for the property, is the Zoller Trust/Dan Huestis with a 1932 priority date.

The project development team includes a professional hydrologist from Montana-based Hydrosolutions, according to Todd Hanson, spokesman for Madison Food Park.

They are in the preliminary stages of review and analysis related to water resources and rights, Hanson said, and expect a final report in the next few months. That report will include calculations on total projected water usage, as well as treatment, filtration and reuse of wast water.

Scott Irvin, manager of the Department of Natural Resource’s Lewistown Water Resources Regional Officer said they haven’t yet received applications for changes to the water rights for the Madison Food Park property.

The process to get a new water right, Irvin said, is rigorous and would likely require the developer to conduct aquifer testing and pump testing to determine if they can achieve their proposed level of water usage of 3.5 million gallons daily.

The testing is “the crucial part, that’s how we decide the impacts to other users,” Irvin said.

The data collected would be part of the application that DNRC and an independent hydrologist would review, Irvin said.

Their review process also looks at statutory criteria, proving the water is available in the amounts the applicant wants and that the usage won’t adversely affect other water right owners without a mitigation plan. The review would also look at potential impacts to the Missouri River and Giant Springs.

Irvin said that if DNRC issues a preliminary determination, there’s a public notice period and if there are objections, the request goes to a public hearing.

Irvin said the Madison is a productive aquifer and the proposed water usage wouldn’t dry up Giant Springs, but that’s not to say there wouldn’t be some depletion. Until they get an application and testing data, Irvin said they aren’t able to speculate on the potential impact.

For perspective on other industrial water users in the area, Malteurop uses about 1 million gallons daily; Calumet uses about 625,000 gallons daily; and ADF uses about 750 gallons daily, according to Great Falls Public Works.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that a person uses 80-100 gallons of water daily. At the low-end of 80 gallons, that equates to about 4.5 million gallons used daily by Great Falls residents, not factoring in other commercial uses or agricultural uses in the Great Falls area. 

The city system could serve a large industrial user, like the proposed food plant, and Public Works director Jim Rearden said they were contacted early on when the developer was considering a site within the city limits.