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Tapped Out: How the California Drought Threatens Craft Brewers and How the Clean Water Act Can Help

Jon Devine

Posted February 28, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Green Enterprise, Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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California's severe drought is threatening people's drinking water supplies, agriculture, the environment, and – as we recently learned -- craft beer.  Brewers who depend on clean water from rivers worry that water managers may need to shift them to other supplies that do not have the same particular mineral content as the water that gives their brews a distinctive taste.  

NPR’s “The Salt” blog talked to one of NRDC’s “Brewers for Clean Water” members for a frightening perspective on what the drought could mean to beer fans (and producers):

In California's Sonoma County, Lagunitas Brewing Company, founded in 1993, has grown into one of the largest craft breweries in the nation. Like several other smaller local breweries, Lagunitas makes its beer with water from the Russian River, a 110-mile waterway that provides drinking water for more than half a million people.

But in the wake of 2013, the driest year ever recorded in California, Lagunitas' owners say they're nervous about shortages that could mean a switch from the river water to not-as-tasty well water.

"If [the county] shifts us over to groundwater, we'd have to sacrifice our nice water supply — that unique, signature, clean Russian River water," says Jeremy Marshall, head brewer at Lagunitas.

The problem with groundwater, he says, is that it's heavy in minerals that don't go well with beer.

"It would be like brewing with Alka-Seltzer," Marshall says.

NRDC supports the package of drought strategies being championed by Governor Brown and California's legislative leaders, because we know that sensible policies that promote water conservation, recycling, and up-to-date infrastructure will help the state cope with what could well be the new normal for Californians in the years to come.  

In addition, national policy improvements can help water-strapped areas.  As I've explained elsewhere, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers have developed an updated set of Clean Water Act safeguards that would prevent unregulated destruction or pollution of many streams, ponds, and wetlands that are in legal limbo today, and have been for over a decade.  Many of these same waters are critical for crops, aquatic species, and drinking water supplies -- for instance, over 7 million Californians get their drinking water from providers that rely on vulnerable streams that the new EPA/Corps initiative will better protect. 

But these important and overdue improvements need to first be released for public input by the White House regulatory office, which can be a black hole for public health and safety protections.

NRDC and our partners in the conservation community, along with many others, are pushing the administration to finally move forward with these needed safeguards for streams, wetlands and other waters.  And you know who else is demanding action?  Brewers!  Recently, 29 craft brewers that have joined with NRDC to support clean water wrote to President Obama, asking that he propose the updated protections.  

You can help make this reform a reality by taking action.  Please take a minute and weigh in now -- waterways and the brewers that depend on them need your help.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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