The Water Issue

A look at the role of water in beer, the state of freshwater in Minnesota, and issues affecting water both here, and around the globe.


Minnesota: Land of 11,842 lakes of more than 10 acres in size. Land of 63,000 miles of rivers and streams, headwaters of three of the largest river basins in North America, and border to the greatest of the five Great Lakes – the largest surface freshwater system on Earth. In total, Minnesota has more freshwater than any of the lower 48. Water, quite literally, begins here. Since beer is comprised of about 92 percent water, one could say that beer begins here as well.

In 2010, U.S. breweries produced about 200 million barrels of beer or 7.2 billion gallons, requiring approximately 40 billion gallons of water. And that’s not counting water used in the production of crops like barley that go into that beer. Add that and by some estimates you’re talking at least two trillion gallons of water used each year for beer making in the United States. For comparison, that’s 30,000 Olympic sized swimming pools, or, if you like, about 4,500 Metrodomes filled to the brim.

Some, like SABMiller, one of the world’s biggest brewers, are launching aggressive water sustainability programs. One SABMiller report states that more than 90 percent of water used in beer production is swallowed up at the crop-growing stage. Water-to-beer estimates range from  60:1 to 300:1.

Beer is a water intensive industry, and breweries are taking note.

A Passion for (non)-Profit

Locally, one of those breweries is Tonka Beer. Launched in May of 2012 in Minnetonka, Tonka Beer donates 100% of its profits to Conservation Minnesota and the University of Minnesota’s Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) Research Center, the latter of which was created with funding by the Minnesota legislature in 2012 to protect Minnesota’s freshwater lakes and rivers from zebra mussels, milfoil, and other invasive species.

U of M Professor Peter Sorensen is the director of the center, and the man who vehemently made the case for its creation. Sorensen argued that invasive species weren’t just threatening Minnesota’s waters, but its way of life.

Turns out that Sorensen didn’t have to make the case at all to Chad Mayes, Jason Landstrom, and Ryan Johnson. The three guys behind Tonka Beer came to him.

Digging Deeper: Money Where the Mouth Is

All in their mid-30s, Mayes, Landstrom, and Johnson have full-time jobs, but wanted something more. A few years ago they were sitting around and, as Mayes says, “Talking about life, and work, and all that, and someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do a brewery?’ We started talking and asking how we could do it, do it for some good, and do it differently.”

Serendipity struck at Invasive Species Day at a Saint Paul Saints baseball game, where Tonka Beer was handing out samples, and Peter Sorensen was throwing out the first pitch.

“They called me up a few weeks later and said they were looking for a cause – I suggested we might be one,” says Sorensen.

Tonka chose invasive species as a cause, says Mayes, because they all grew up in Minnetonka.

“That’s where we got our passion for lakes,” says Mayes. “And the biggest thing we’ve seen affecting water quality is….Lake Minnetonka became infested with milfoil – and we grew up with it.”

More recently, zebra mussels have moved in on Lake Minnetonka.

“They’re just a little shellfish,” says Mayes. “But a few years ago there were, say, 10 per square foot on the bottom of the lake. Now there are 4,000. They’re taking nutrients, but it really becomes a problem for humans in year five, when they start dying and those shells start washing up on the beaches. They’re as sharp as glass. So it will change the lake, the beach-going experience,” he says. Aqua Socks and flip-flop manufacturers may be the only ones to rejoice.

Sorensen says AIS often effect a dramatic, disturbing change, and all too often it’s permanent. The University’s AIS center hopes to find a way to reverse that.

“AIS are a biological pollutant, and they’re the worst kind because they reproduce, replicate, and destroy the water that most people care about,” Sorensen says. He says that zebra mussels are now an invasive species in a couple hundred Minnesota lakes and spreading. “And if you get zebra mussels in a lake, for all intents and purposes, they’re there forever.”

Still, Sorensen believes that the common carp might be the biggest issue in AIS. “They’ve been here since the 1800s, so people have gotten used to them,” he says. “But they’ve destroyed much more water quality and quantity than anything else. They ravage the landscape, uprooting everything. It’s like deforestation underwater, but you can’t see what’s going on.”

Bigger problems

The biggest threat to clean water is agricultural runoff, according to the Minnesota Water Sustainability Framework, a report presented to the Minnesota State Legislature in 2012 by the U of M’s Water Resources Center. Follow the Mississippi from its headwaters in Northern Minnesota 2,500 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico, and you’ll find a huge “dead zone,” an area of oxygen-depleted water ranging from 5,000-7,000 square miles completely, devoid of fish, caused by fertilizer chemicals like nitrogen and phosphorus.

But controlling water pollution from agriculture is a challenge, especially since agriculture is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act.

That’s why it was big news in early June when it was announced that Minnesota had been selected by the USDA to test a first-in-the-nation voluntary pilot project that offers farmers incentives to reduce water pollution. Dubbed the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, it marks a new strategy to stem agricultural pollution.

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