Midwest breweries lead environmental group's charge to fortify water laws

April 12, 2013

Raise a cold one this weekend and make a toast to the Clean Water Act.

That’s the advice of the Natural Resources Defense Council as they team up with 21 craft breweries in an effort to raise awareness of threats to the key ingredient in beer.

As any beginning homebrewer’s kitchen floor will attest, the brewing process requires a lot of water. Beer is 90 percent water, and including all the water it takes to clean brewing materials and rinse the packaged product, it can take 7 gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer.

“When you talk about beer, you have to talk about water. It’s not as sexy as talking about hops and malt,” said Jason Spaulding, co-owner of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, Mich. “If we don’t look after [our water] long-term, it’s going to directly hurt our industry and our livelihood.”

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, following a series of high-profile pollution incidents including the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. Citing recent congressional attempts to tinker with the law or erode the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to enforce clean water provisions, NRDC’s senior policy analyst Karen Hobbs said the coalition of brewers isn’t united for or against any particular policy proposal.

“We're hoping to work with the brewers to have a consistent industry voice in support of clean water,” Hobbs said. “Some brewers will want to enter into specific policy issues.”

Two supreme court decisions in 2001 and 2006 questioned the EPA’s jurisdiction to enforce the Clean Water Act. The agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are waiting for clarification from the Obama administration before they enter into legal battles over water pollution where the legal definition of what waters are covered in the act is unclear. In Arizona, for example, storm water containing grease and oil from nearby construction sites pours into the San Pedro River for only part of the year. Since the tributaries carrying pollution do not flow year-round, the EPA dropped its enforcement efforts there to avoid a long and costly legal battle.

The bottom line for the nation’s craft brewers and their customers, however, is straightforward.

“If your water’s not good, your beer’s not going to be good,” Spaulding said.

Goose Island uses more than 18 million gallons of water each year, racking up a hefty water bill. Some large water users negotiate for a flat monthly fee for water, but many craft breweries, including Goose Island, pay a monthly rate based on how much water they actually use. Like any ratepayer in Chicago, Goose Island gets their water from Lake Michigan.

“Lake Michigan water has a really great chemical content to it to use as your blank canvas,” said Goose Island’s Ian Hughes.

Like many breweries, Goose Island is pursuing water conservation efforts, reusing water that rinses beer bottles after they’ve been filled and commissioning a life-cycle assessment of their product's environmental footprint.

Despite some recent rate hikes, water in the Great Lakes region is among the cheapest in the country. Even where rates are higher, many argue they don't reflect the true cost of water. If ensuring clean water costs more, Brewery Vivant’s Spaulding said he is prepared to pay.

“That’s a cost we’d be happy to pay,” he said. “Without that clean water you don’t have a viable business.”