U.S. beer industry hit by brewing debate over water regulation

People who brew America's craft beers and the farmers who grow ingredients used in them are landing on opposite sides of a debate sparked by the Environmental Protection Agency. Months of lobbying for and against a rule change related to bodies of water is leading up to an Oct. 20 deadline.

Some farmers and beer brewers are on opposite sides of a rift over clean water

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to change a rule that regulates bodies of water, pitting beer brewers against farmers in the resulting debate. Brewers are hoping President Barack Obama, seen drinking Guinness in Ireland in 2011, will side with them. (The Associated Press)

A battle over water, and who should regulate it, has been brewing for months in the United States, and its outcome has the potential to affect a vital industry and product — beer.

The people who brew America's beers and the people who farm the ingredients used to make them are finding themselves on opposite sides of a debate sparked by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Back in March, the EPA issued a draft proposal for new guidelines under the Clean Water Act that it argues will clarify which bodies of water fall under its jurisdiction. The EPA maintains it is not seeking to expand its authority, but that's how many critics see it.

Opponents say the EPA is trying to regulate everything from a puddle on someone's property to a creek that might be dry most of the year. Not so, is the message the EPA is struggling to get across; the guidelines would clarify rules for streams and wetlands and do not add any new bodies of water to the ones already covered under the legislation, the agency says.

The new rule, if finalized, would cut red tape and more efficiently enforce the Clean Water Act, which would mean cleaner water, the EPA argues.
Some farmers are critical of the EPA's proposal to change how it regulates waterways and say the new guidelines aren't needed and will impose new fees on them. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

The end of the public comment period is coming up on Oct. 20 and there has been plenty of lobbying both for and against the proposed "waters of the United States" rule.

Some farmers view the proposal as overreach by the EPA and are opposed to further regulation, while environmentalists applaud the move and have been encouraging America's craft brewers in particular to get behind it.

Clean water, great beer

The Natural Resources Defense Council has been promoting a "Clean Water, Great Beer"campaign that emphasizes the importance of the beverage's No. 1 ingredient.

"Beer is about 90 per cent water, and the quality of local water supplies has been critical to brewing beer for centuries," the organization says on its website.

Brewers depend on clean, plentiful water supplies and those supplies depend on "responsible regulation" that protect them from pollution, according to the NRDC. It claims the Clean Water Act is at risk unless the EPA follows through on its draft proposal.

Forty craft beer companies have so far signed on to the NRDC's campaign.

"It's important that we as business owners look forward to ensure that the water sources we currently have available to us stay in the condition that they are in, and improve," Matt Gregg, owner of the Arbor Brewing Company, says in an online video.

"Clean water is a palette for a brewer," Brett Porter, brew master at Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago, says in his own video. "Clean water is the first thing the brewer needs to have in their plant.”

The brewers have written to President Barack Obama urging his administration to make the proposed guidelines final. They say the new rules will mean cleaner water, and great-tasting beer.

These brewers get their other ingredients — hops, barley, wheat — from farmers, some of whom aren't happy about the EPA's efforts, along with other business owners including land developers.

Farmers worry about new permits

The American Farm Bureau Federation has been leading the charge to fight the EPA, urging it to drop the proposal. Ditch the Rule is the name of the campaign that opponents are joining.

The Farm Bureau is concerned that if the rule is finalized, it would trigger new requirements for costly permits for activities on farmers' own land such as digging a ditch, building a fence or using a fertilizer. Some farmers are also worried about being subject to lawsuits from environmental groups.

It doubts the EPA's claim that farmers will continue to enjoy the same exemptions they currently have under the Clean Water Act.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. is one of 40 beer companies backing a campaign that is in favour of rule changes governing the regulation of water. Cleaner water equals better beer, they argue. (Mark Duncan/Associated Press)

The group also feels that farmers are already regulated enough and already take environmental protection seriously.

"The last people who want to harm the land and water are the farmers who rely on it for their livelihood and intend to pass it on to future generations of their families," said Ann George, executive director of the Hop Growers of America.

Her organization has not taken an official position on the EPA proposal but in general, George said in an interview, more regulation isn't necessary.

"We have enough issues with overreach of regulatory agencies without having the EPA added to the mix," she said.

George also made the point that farmers and brewers are not necessarily at odds — they all want clean water — and that any opposition to the EPA rule shouldn't be interpreted otherwise.

"We have all kinds of technologies that our growers have implemented to make sure the waters are maintained in as clean of a situation as humanly possible,"she said.

"We have plenty of regulations on the books now and people are doing a very good job of maintaining excellent water quality." 

The beer brewers who are pushing for the rule, however, say it's needed and they're counting on Obama to get it through. Given that he's the president who brought home-brewing to the White House in 2012 — he bought the equipment and had his chefs come up with the recipes and brew it right on the grounds — they hope he's on their side.


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