It's the Water

Regulations threaten Portland's craft beers.


Craft beer is serious business in Oregon. Microbrewers contribute roughly $2.3 billion to the state's economy each year, pumping out 327,000 barrels annually. During the last five years, they have created 2,300 jobs, bringing the total number of Oregonians working in the industry to 5,200. There are at least 30 breweries within Portland city limits alone. Whether you're in the trendy Pearl district, the sprawling South East, or the quaint Mississippi neighborhood, you don't have to venture far to find the perfect pint.

Portland doesn't just export beer. Its local brews attract beer lovers to the city in droves. The four-day Oregon Brewers Festival drew 72,500 people in 2009.

Yet the Beaver State's craft breweries have faced two major recent challenges. First the Oregon legislature tried to increase the beer tax by a staggering 1,900 percent, to roughly $50 per barrel. Faced with broad opposition, lawmakers dropped that idea. Now the industry faces a greater challenge from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), one that strikes not just at brewers' pocketbooks but at the quality of their product.

In 1993 Milwaukee suffered a massive outbreak of cryptosporidium, a microbe that causes diarrhea and can be lethal in people with compromised immune systems. More than 100 people died. Although Milwaukee already had a state-of-the-art water filtration system, the outbreak was traced back to the city's drinking water. This was the catalyst for new federal regulations, finalized more than a decade later, that imposed stricter filtration standards.

Portland, one of several major cities with open reservoirs, nevertheless maintained zero levels of cryptosporidium throughout its testing during the 1990s. And despite a recent false alarm, the city hasn't detected so much as a trace of cryptosporidium since 2002. Yet the Portland Water Bureau, in response to the EPA's new regulations, plans to disconnect its unfiltered open reservoirs at Mt. Tabor and Washington Park. They will be replaced by a covered reservoir at Washington Park, as well as new reservoirs at Powell Butte and Kelly Butte.

The plan is to filter the water with high intensity UV bulbs. The cost is estimated at $403 million. While this would kill any cryptosporidium entering the water supply, Water Commissioner Randy Leonard points out that it could also cause mercury to enter the water if a bulb were to break. Given that the city hasn't seen a trace of the bug since 2002, this doesn't seem like a great tradeoff.

No one argues that Portland's water supply isn't safe. Though it is impossible to prove that no one has ever gotten ill from the water, the water consistently maintains zero levels of cryptosporidium. Local brewers consider it to be some of the best drinking water anywhere. Kurt Widmer, co-owner and founder of Widmer Brothers Brewing Company, is baffled by the new regulations. "The water we have is flawless for drinking and brewing," Widmer says. "How do you improve on that perfection?" He agrees that "the intent of the regulations is good; everyone should have clean drinking water." But he also points out that the uncovered reservoirs have served the community well for more than 100 years. In response to the argument that precautionary measures may reduce the risk of future outbreaks, Widmer says: "You can always say that. The risk approaches zero. How much do you have to spend to move from virtual certainty to certainty? $100 million? $500 million?" He also notes that "the type of cryptosporidium that was found in Milwaukee comes from livestock, and there is no livestock near our water supply. It's out in the pristine wilderness." 

Widmer's opposition to the water regulations goes beyond the cost to taxpayers. The new rules would have two unintended consequences for brewers. First, the increased water cost will hit them particularly hard. The Portland Water Bureau estimates that water costs for everyone will double within four years, and Widmer alone uses 40 million gallons a year. Second, beer is mostly made of water, and the particular taste of Portland brews is undoubtedly linked to the quality of the water that is used to make them. Now that's about to change, with no way for brewers to know how it will alter their product. "When they muck around with it, they can alter the quality of the water," says Widmer. Many local brewers share this concern.

The EPA has said that cities with open reservoirs that can prove zero levels of cryptosporidium may be able to receive a variance to the regulations. Sen. Jeff Merkely (D-Oregon) has been lobbying the agency to grant one for Portland, but he believes "a legislative approach has very little chance of success." The progressive Willamette Week has declared the regulations completely unnecessary. While the paper objects to the costs, its strongest objection is that altering the water supply will "change the beer that has made Portland famous." Former Portland water commissioner Dan Saltzman calls the new rules a solution in search of a problem. 

Community activists flooded a recent Portland City Council meeting where the issue was discussed. Many were concerned about the chemical byproducts that may be emitted by the UV bulbs, not to mention the water price increases that will be necessary to construct the new reservoirs. They urged Mayor Sam Adams to step up the fight against the EPA, to which he responded that they are "fighting it in every way that we can."

Portland isn't Milwaukee. It is a self-consciously hip city that prides itself on its idiosyncrasies. One-size-fits-all regulations just don't fit the Portland attitude, and neither does tasteless beer. Open water reservoirs may seem weird to outsiders, but for Portland beer drinkers, weird is just fine.