Out to Dry: Southwest Water Shortages Offer Lessons for All

The American Southwest is facing historic reductions in something that breweries use in great quantity: water. The situation is politically fraught, but there are ways that breweries can reduce their water use and make a difference.

Kate Bernot Feb 2, 2023 - 10 min read

Out to Dry: Southwest Water Shortages Offer Lessons for All Primary Image

Photo: SignMedia/Shutterstock

In fall of 2022, the low water levels at Lake Mead reservoir, along the border of Arizona and Nevada, yielded some disturbing visuals: exposed concrete supports, stranded houseboats run ashore, and crusty barrels that had long been submerged under the lake’s surface.

The low levels were due to drought-induced reductions, and the images were alarming to the general public. Yet that alarm was felt more acutely by breweries across the Southwest—breweries that rely on water supplied by the Colorado River, which fills Lake Mead.

The states of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico already had taken historic water cuts over the summer in response to warnings from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages the Colorado River Basin. Arizona especially felt the pinch, agreeing to reduce its draw from the Colorado River by 512,000 acre-feet, or roughly 167 billion gallons—that’s about a third of the water that would be delivered under a normal, non-drought year. (An acre-foot is the volume of a sheet of water one acre in area and one foot in depth.)

This year, central Arizona—where 85 percent of the state’s population lives—will need to reduce usage by 592,000 acre-feet.


What It Means for Breweries

So far, these dramatic cuts haven’t led to major disruptions for those who use municipal water in large cities such as Phoenix, Tucson, or Mesa. However, they’re already creating headaches for rural breweries that rely on wells for their water supply.

According to Arizona Craft Brewers Guild executive director Rob Fullmer, the city council in the central Arizona town of Jerome last year denied a business’s application to change its license to become a brewery, largely because of councilmembers’ concerns over water use. Fullmer says discussions were “a nonstarter.”

Such heated debates over water aren’t new in the Southwest. The legal infrastructure that governs how much water that states and Indigenous tribes can draw from the Colorado River is unprepared to adjust to the massive cuts that the Bureau of Reclamation has deemed necessary. The Colorado River Basin Project Act of 1968 is still the operating framework, but its drafters did not foresee the stressors of climate change, drought, and population growth on the river system. It has set up a heated political showdown among the seven basin states, Mexico, and dozens of tribal nations that rely on this critical river.

“We’re looking at conditions that are worse than people ever anticipated, especially in the late 1960s,” says Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University (ASU). “We’re looking at permanent reductions in the amount of water that we can expect to take out of the Colorado River system.”

Agriculture has so far been the industry targeted by water cuts, but Porter says that breweries—whose product, of course, is 99 percent water—need to have this issue on their radars, no matter where they’re located.


“If you want to put yourself out there as an industry that truly cares, then you need to be providing leadership in terms of making a difference,” Porter says. “Breweries all around the country should pay attention because, while water is the issue here, almost every region is facing new challenges related to climate change and other ways we’ve decided to use the land that are disruptive to natural processes.”

Rules Vary by Locality

It’s been challenging for breweries—even in Arizona and other Southwest states—to decide how to address the issue of water-use reduction. The issue is far from simple, and there is a patchwork of regulations and needs.

While the Colorado River compact is subjected to debate on the international, federal, and state levels, breweries get their water at the local level—from utilities or wells.

In Arizona, Fullmer says, rural breweries in heavily agricultural areas, such as Cochise County, are likely to be most affected by this issue. In that county, residents in two water basins voted in November on whether to establish Active Management Areas (AMAs) for groundwater; one of those passed, and one failed.

“We acknowledge that every brewery’s circumstance in every locality is not the same,” Fullmer says. “We’re trying to be a clearinghouse for information and suggestions to try to do the small things you can.”


Modest Steps for Major Impact

Ironically, it’s been a suburban brewery in Gilbert, Arizona, that’s been one of the state’s most vocal about its efforts to reduce water use. It’s done that most prominently through its choice of malt supplier.

For the past five years, Arizona Wilderness Brewing has been using barley grown and malted in-state—by Sinagua Malt in Camp Verde, about 90 miles north of Phoenix—as its primary base malt.

Sinagua’s own tagline—written prominently at the top of its website—is “market-based river conservation.” The company partners with farmers in the Verde Valley, encouraging them to switch from growing high-water-use crops in the demanding summer months to lower-water-use barley in the fall and winter. That leaves more water in the Verde River during dry, high-demand summers.

Arizona Wilderness head brewer Ashley Benson says the malt is a way for the brewery to have a larger impact, beyond what it could do by shaving a gallon off the cleaning cycles or by switching away from reverse-osmosis water (a process that inherently wastes water). Because agriculture is the largest user of water in the state, helping farmers reduce what they draw from rivers is where the brewery has chosen to focus.

“There’s not a whole lot [that,] as a small brewery, we can do in terms of water reclamation,” Benson says. “It’s overwhelming to think about how to tweak all the little things to make a big impact. It was about finding a way for us to have a larger impact, and that became Sinagua Malt.”


Relying on the local malt has its own challenges. Sinagua’s malt costs more than commodity malt, and early on, its efficiency was “really inconsistent,” Benson says. That’s been dialed in over time, but Arizona Wilderness still has to make slight adjustments to its mill for every batch to ensure it’s getting an appropriate grind. Benson describes working with Sinagua Malt as “doing the hard thing,” but she also says that the malt’s quality has come a long way—and that if more breweries signed on, the price likely would come down. She says she’d like to see more breweries work with Sinagua—or at least to think more creatively about solutions to the water crisis.

“I know that there are a lot of breweries here in the valley that are trying to kick it down the road, to not think about it,” Benson says. “But it’s something we’ve been really focused on.”

The Wider Context

At ASU, Porter agrees that breweries should be part of solutions for reducing water use, and it matters that Sinagua Malt is helping keep water in the river during summer’s peak usage times. However, she tempers that praise by pointing out that the existential threat to the Verde River is not those farmers, but the drilling of wells, many of which are being used by local vineyards.

“It’s good that this program is happening, but the reality is that it’s not really stopping the problem of the wells being drilled,” she says. She adds that she’d like to see “better alignment” between breweries and water-policy experts.

“It’s hard for industries, especially small businesses, to get this information,” she says. “But there are places like [ASU’s] policy center and others where they can get some insights that are helpful in deciding how to take care of the environment.” Porter suggests that breweries anywhere—not just in Arizona—get in touch with their municipal water providers to ask about programs or audits that might help them reduce their water use.

Fullmer—who also serves on the board of the Arizona Wine Growers Association—says the brewers’ guild welcomes conversations about breweries’ water use, even if they’re politically fraught. He says he feels optimistic, given the recent swearing in of Governor Katie Hobbs, who he says is well-versed in water issues. Plainly, breweries, policy makers, and experts need to be aligned if they’re going to have a more meaningful impact.

“It is incumbent upon all of us in this industry to understand the current state of the problem and learn about some of the solutions that will have to be made for our survival,” Fullmer says. “While I am far from having a handle on this, I am asking breweries to join me in discovery, education, and action.”

Reducing Water Use in the Brewery

For more about how breweries can reduce their water consumption, see The Sustainable Brewery: Making Beer on Hard Mode, as well as the guide published by the Brewers Association, Water and Wastewater: Treatment/Volume Reduction Manual.