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Brewers Urge the Supreme Court to Protect the Clean Water Act

Mike Pomranz

About 90 percent of beer is water. Granted, about 100 percent of water is water, but beer lovers are passionate about their preferred tipple, and when a brewer says loosening the regulations that help keep our water supply clean could also hurt our beer supply, they perk up and listen. A group of 60 breweries hopes that the Supreme Court will listen, too.

As CNBC reports, a coalition of five dozen brewers from across the country signed a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this year asking the Supreme Court to uphold the current interpretation of the Clean Water Act as affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the case, set to be heard by justices next month, Maui's Lahaina Wastewater Reclamation Facility is seeking a looser interpretation of waste disposal that could potentially make polluting water easier for other companies, as well. This, in turn, could threaten water supplies at large.

The stakes go beyond beer, but as Gene Muller—founder of New Jersey's Flying Fish Brewing, which signed the brief—told me, brewers are in an ideal position to speak up. "People trust beer," he said. "Saying 'Clean Water Act' is a pretty abstract thing… But when you have brewers and people whose lives revolve around water and doing great things with it, I think that resonates more. It makes it more real for people—like, hey, if we don't have clean water, we're not going to have great beer. And that gives it some context. Otherwise, it's just, who would be against clean water?"

Breweries are also able hammer home the extent of the problem because they often alter their water regardless—even if it's only to get a profile that fits a certain style. And yet, breweries still aren't able to solve every water issue they're faced with. "Whether its chemicals, pharmaceutical drugs, or herbicides, no water treatment is able to take that out," Muller explains. "Our barley requires water. Our hops require water. It's up and down the whole process. So it's not just a matter of the water comes in and we can clean it up."

Still, as Allagash Brewing—one of America's 50 largest breweries and which also signed the brief—explains, starting with great water makes life easier. "We pay close attention to our water," Brewmaster Jason Perkins tells me. "Sebago Lake—our water source—is one of only 50 public surface water supplies in the entire country that require no filtration before treatment. The Clean Water Act, along with local efforts, has kept that water pristine. A rollback of the Clean Water Act could threaten the quality of our water and the water of people across America."

Of course, a reinterpretation of the Clean Water Act wouldn't end brewing in the United States, but as the brief states, beyond potentially making our water and our beer less safe, changing how the law is applied would force breweries to adjust, which could affect a $76 billion craft beer industry that employs a half-million people, likely hurting some brewers' bottom line. "There are over 7,000 craft breweries across the United States, and we all need our watersheds protected for the health of the industry. At New Belgium we're dedicated to proving that business can be a force for good, and when it comes to water we're all in this together," Steve Fechheimer, CEO at New Belgium Brewing—another brewery on the brief—told me via email. "Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has kept our waterways healthy, and brewers depend upon its strength to keep our doors open and to keep the beer flowing. We can't make great beer without great water, and consistent interpretation of the Clean Water Act helps to ensure consistent and clean water sources for brewers."

In the end, water is something that affects everyone and every living thing, but as a group that's economically tied to the need for quality water supplies—and that needs quality water to keep our beloved beers tasting their best—brewers hope they can provide a voice that resonates with the court. Let's hope those justices like beer.