They are urging the Obama administration to release a long-delayed update of the Clean Water Act that would attempt to clarify which wetlands, streams and other waterways the law protects. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue in 2006, which involved two Michigan cases, left many confused.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a tentative set of guidelines for interpreting the ruling in 2011 but has yet to produce a final version.
Conservationists hoping to step up pressure on the administration have tapped the support of 20 craft beer brewers, including seven from Michigan, who contend pure water is crucial to making good beer.
"America's waterways are vital to more than great-tasting beer," the brewers said in a recent letter to the president, himself a beer enthusiast. "They are critical to our environment, our communities, our economy, and our health."
They argued that "headwater and intermittently-flowing tributary streams" not clearly under federal EPA rules "must ... be protected, benefiting the more than 117 million Americans whose drinking water comes from systems drawing supply from such streams."
The Supreme Court was so sharply divided in its 2006 ruling that they produced five separate opinions and no clear majority. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's controlling opinion said the government could assert jurisdiction over a wetland if it had a significant connection to a navigable waterway.
Former President George W. Bush's administration adopted a strict interpretation of what constitutes "navigable waters" subject to regulation. Environmental groups want the EPA to broaden protections to include "geographically isolated" waters not directly linked to larger bodies such as the Great Lakes.
Richard Studley, president of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said Michigan already has sufficient wetland and stream rules. Gov. Rick Snyder recently signed a bill with changes that business groups favored but environmentalists said would weaken protections.
"We're in favor of clean water. We're in favor of beer," Studley said. "We're not in favor of expansion of the EPA's statutory authority to bodies of water not connected to national or international waterways."
Michigan Farm Bureau legislative counsel Matt Smego said new EPA guidelines wouldn't have the force of law, but the agency likely would follow with rules that would trump the legislative update of Michigan's regulations.
"We're concerned," Smego said. "Depending on how broad (any new rules might be), you could have wet spots in farm fields or farm ditches regulated" by clean water standards.
Among the White House letter signers were Jason and Kris Spaulding, owners of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids.
"Luckily, we're surrounded by water — the Great Lakes," said Jason Spaulding. "We're trying to take a look at this issue beyond our immediate surroundings. Water needs to be protected in other places, too, or more pressure will come to Great Lakes waters."
Russell Springsteen, who partners with his wife, Bronwen, at Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City, said his city-provided water from Grand Traverse Bay is of such high quality it requires little more than chlorine removal to make good beer.
"If we're going to use the water, it's our responsibility to take care of it," said Springsteen.