STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The old comic strip Beetle Bailey once had a character who said three things are good for you - early morning runs, cold showers and beer. The character then revises his statement, saying two out of three ain't bad. Much as you may enjoy it, beer is not so good for you. But it turns out the waste from making beer can be good for the water. Yellowstone Public Radio's Rachel Cramer reports on a byproduct from craft breweries that helps to clean wastewater.
RACHEL CRAMER, BYLINE: Bozeman, Montana's water reclamation facility treats more than 6 million gallons of water every day from sinks, showers, toilets - really, anything that goes down a drain. That includes liquid waste from the 11 breweries in this city of nearly 50,000. Because it's rich in yeast, hops and sugar, brewery waste can throw off the microbes wastewater plants use to remove nitrogen and phosphorus, two things that cause algae blooms in rivers and kill off fish.
CORALYNN REVIS: But if we can use it correctly and put it in the right spot, it's very beneficial to the process.
CRAMER: Engineering consultant Coralynn Revis led a pilot project here last summer to try to do just that. Bozeman worked with a local brewery to feed its beer waste to the treatment plant's bacteria, or bugs, at just the right time in just the right dosage.
REVIS: This is super simplified, but, like, if they're eating their French fries, they need a little ketchup with it. So to get the nitrate out, you dose a little carbon and the bugs are happier.
CRAMER: Revis says it worked. They got the idea from an even smaller town about 300 miles to the north, near the Canadian border.
CRAMER: This is the tap room at Triple Dog Brewing in Havre, Mont. - population 10,000 Three years ago, the town's wastewater plant manager approached brewery owner Michael Garrity with the idea of using leftover barley from making beer to feed his microbes.
MICHAEL GARRITY: You know, with my knowledge of brewing and fermentation, I said, well, why aren't we doing this? This sounds amazing.
CRAMER: If it worked, the little town could potentially avoid having to spend a million dollars upgrading its wastewater plant to meet new, more stringent clean water standards.
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CRAMER: Drue Newfield, Havre's wastewater plant manager, walks over to something that looks like a well.
DRUE NEWFIELD: This is where we apply it.
CRAMER: For the last three years, Newfield or one of his employees has been dumping one bucket of spent barley from Triple Dog Brewing into the water rushing below every morning.
NEWFIELD: The bacteria love it, is what I've found. And it just disappears by the end.
CRAMER: Newfield says it took a lot of troubleshooting the first two years, but the team eventually figured out how much spent barley to add and what conditions the bacteria needed to be happy. The barley is free - that's way cheaper than adding a chemical called alum they thought they'd have to buy to do the same thing.
NEWFIELD: We know the alum that we've saved already is about $16,000 a year, for sure. But if that wouldn't have done it, that's when an upgrade around the corner would've been, and then if we have to do an upgrade, there's where you run into the millions.
CRAMER: The Environmental Protection Agency noticed Havre's innovative approach and gave it an honorable mention at the end of last year.
NEWFIELD: I didn't go into this for an award; I went into it just because it's - what do you do to do the best job you can?
CRAMER: Newfield and Michael Garrity with Triple Dog say they think their partnership is a model that could be replicated elsewhere. Several towns in Montana are interested in trying it, and Newfield says he even got a call from a plant manager in Boston. But it may not work everywhere. While the water reclamation facility in Bozeman found the chemistry worked, the logistics of transporting the liquid brewery waste there are too expensive for now. If regulations get stricter, the plant may consider this approach in the future.
For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cramer in Havre, Mont.
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