Blue Gold Rush


By Jim Rush

Milwaukee is inextricably linked to water.

The city lies on the shore of Lake Michigan and near the confluence of the Menomonee, Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic rivers. In fact, the name itself is a Native American term often translated as ?gathering place by the water.? It is this connection to water that helped drive Milwaukee into a leader in manufacturing and, perhaps more notably, brewing.

But like much of the Midwest and along the so-called Rust Belt, the Milwaukee area has seen a decline as industries have moved south or overseas. Even the mighty brewing industry that made Milwaukee famous has been in decline. But it is Milwaukee?s connection to water, along with the industrial heritage it spawned, that now may be writing the next chapter in the city?s history.

Milwaukee is home to a diverse community of businesses, many of which have connections to or depend on clean water. MillerCoors, GE, Siemens, Veolia, ITT, Johnson Controls and IBM are but a few examples of companies related to water that are headquartered or have a major presence in Milwaukee. And these companies, along with local government agencies and academia, are banding together to promote Milwaukee as the ?freshwater hub of the world.?

A number of these companies, along with the involvement of local water/wastewater utilities and academia, have coalesced with the help of the Milwaukee Water Council to foster information sharing, collaboration and a common pathway forward. The Milwaukee Water Council started as part of the ?Milwaukee 7? regional economic development organization comprising seven counties in the metropolitan area. The Milwaukee Water Council came into being as planners began to realize the abundance of water-related companies and academic institutions based in the area, while at the same time executives at two of the water companies made the same discovery.

The Milwaukee Water Council was officially launched in 2007 with the mission to align the freshwater research community and water-related industries to promote the Milwaukee region as a worldwide leader.

Our Most Vital Resource

The need for fresh water is evident; there is no substitute. Not only is it a basic necessity for life, but also for transportation, power generation, agriculture and manufacturing. It is the foundation upon which everything else relies.? Or, as the Milwaukee Water Council puts it: ?Fresh water is critical for health ? and wealth.?

This critical need is increasingly being recognized across the country. In the United States, cities in the arid Southwest are turning to stringent conservation methods, water reuse and desalination to ensure a sustainable supply of water. But that?s not all. Cities through the East and Midwest are under mandates to stop combined and sanitary sewer overflows, and in the Southeast legal wrangling is afoot over water rights in this growing region.

Worldwide, 1.2 billion people are at risk from a lack of clean, available water, while 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. The importance of clean water is illustrated by the sobering fact that 35 percent of people in developing countries die from water-related problems.

In Milwaukee, the nexus of abundant freshwater, private industry, academia and government have led to the realization that becoming the worldwide hub for all things water can position the city for future growth.
At the same time the Milwaukee 7 economic development council was exploring the connection of water-related industries in the region, executives Rich Meeusen of Badger Meter and Paul Jones of water heating equipment maker A. O. Smith made their own discovery. Each company had its own testing lab ? Badger Meter for cold-water testing and A. O. Smith for hot-water testing ? and was hiring out research from outside the region despite the fact that they were located just miles apart. Meeusen and Jones were introduced to the work that the Milwaukee 7 was doing, and gave additional impetus to the freshwater movement. Meeusen and Jones now serve as Co-Chairs of the Milwaukee Water Council.

According to Executive Director Dean Amhaus, the Milwaukee Water Council serves as an economic development group with three primary goals: economic development, talent development and water quality solutions.


Education is a key component in achieving the goals of the Water Council, both in terms of developing technology and in developing a talented pool of professionals. The Milwaukee region is fortunate to have educational and research institutions in place locally that can aid in the overall goals. These include the post-secondary institutions the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee , University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, University of Wisconsin-Parkside and Marquette University, as well as the Great Lakes WATER Institute, part of UW-Milwaukee and the largest academic freshwater research facility on the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes WATER Institute (WATER being an acronym for the Wisconsin Aquatic Technology and Environmental Research) has origins dating back 40 years. It has the only research vessel operating on the Great Lakes year-round, and conducts research on how freshwater systems operate, including human impacts on the systems.

UW-Milwaukee and the WATER Institute this fall have launched a School for Freshwater Sciences ? the first in the United States ? that offers post-graduate courses. The school has nine students this fall, and Val Klump, director of the WATER Institute and an adjunct professor at UW-Milwaukee envisions as many as 50 to 60 students in the future.

?In forming the new school, one of the things we have done is broaden the scope beyond the traditional system dynamics,? Klump said. ?We are looking at things like how humans impact fresh water systems and how you make them sustainable.

?We have to engage technology because these systems are managed ? whether deliberately or inadvertently. Nature cannot simply heal itself, so we need to employ technology to make them sustainable.?

Research conducted by the institute has included the study of microbial contamination and the effects of combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows and stormwater runoff. Researchers have been successful in developing a molecular technique to determine the source of contamination, i.e. whether it is human. Oftentimes, Klump says, pollution was often blamed on overflows from the treatment plant, which may not necessarily have been the case. This source identification can also help identify areas cross connection when human signals are found in stormwater discharges.

As evidence of the emerging interest in the water sector, the institute has plans to build a $50 million addition to its harbor-front facility. In addition, a second facility will be constructed to serve as a business incubator for water businesses working with both UW-Milwaukee and Marquette University.

The Backbone of Clean Water

Infrastructure is at the heart of clean water in an urban area, and as such the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) plays a vital role for the region. MMSD is a regional government agency that provides wastewater treatment and flood management services for 28 communities in the Milwaukee area, serving 1.1 million people in a 420-square mile service area. It was originally founded in 1913 as the Sewerage Commission of the City of Milwaukee to design and build a complete sewage disposal system.

Like much of the water-related industries around the region, MMSD has been a driving force and an example for other areas. MMSD has invested some $4 billion to improve its seweage infrastructure over the last two decades, and has been successful in reducing the average number of combined sewer overflows from 50 to 60 per year in 1993 before the first of its deep storage tunnels came online to 2.5 overflows per year today.

?We are continually trying to reduce the number and impact of combined sewer overflows and we have seen a significant improvement in the water quality,? said Kevin Shafer, MMSD executive director. ?We have fish migrating in our rivers now, and we have restaurants opening up with river frontage; we are seeing a real economic benefit beyond the water quality improvement.?

MMSD entered into an O&M contract with Veolia Water in 2008, and was a key component of Veolia?s Water Impact Index, a new metric developed in 2010 that was designed to track the water AND energy impacts of a particular business, product or community. The Water Impact Index is similar to a Carbon Footprint Calculator in that it tracks the total volume of water and energy used for a particular process.? However, the Water Impact Index factors in the effects on water quality as well as its strain on water availability, i.e. a water intensive process would have a greater impact in an arid region vs. a water rich region.? According to Veolia, “In terms of sheer water usage, the production of peanut candies requires 6 times more water than the production of tomato sauce. However, using its Water Impact Index, Veolia found that ?tomato sauce impact is 10 times higher when factoring in water stress.”

Veolia developed the Water Impact Index using MMSD operations as its first case study. The idea behind the index is to aid in identifying business locations that, combined with a carbon and economic analysis, increase environmental efficiency.

“The Water Impact Index allows me as a manager of a major utility to have another tool in the decision-making process for how we move forward, both from a programmatic standpoint and an individual project standpoint,” Shafer said. “It allows us to see the entire picture of our impact.”

Another area in which MMSD has been a leader is in the area of green infrastructure. Green infrastructure, which includes rooftop gardens and riparian buffers, are designed to mimic natural systems and reduce the amount of stormwater runoff and the resultant non-point pollution. Milwaukee has more than 6 acres of green roofs and has purchased more than 2,500 acres of land along rivers that serves as a natural barrier to runoff entering waterways.

“We are continuing to improve our traditional pipe and plant infrastructure, but we are seeing the benefits of using alternative methods of reducing stormwater runoff,” Shafer said.

Forging Ahead

Milwaukee?s goal of becoming the ?Silicon Valley of Water? is taking hold in other areas as well. Milwaukee has been named as the North American hub for the Alliance for Water Stewardship, which is a global effort to develop water standards similar to the U.S. Green Building Council?s LEED standards, which rate buildings based on energy and water efficiency among other environmental factors.

Additionally, Milwaukee is involved with the UN Global Compact Cities Programme, making it one of 14 cities in the world that are tackling a wide range of issues. The Global Compact cities initiative focuses on collaboration among government, businesses and civil groups addressing urban challenges. Milwaukee was selected on the basis of its efforts to maintain and improve water quality.

The city is working to create a National Center for Water Technology and Policy, and has been expanding relationships with international cities to exchange knowledge and resources.

“The Water Council has raised the awareness of our organization and the water industry in general here locally and regionally,” Klump said. “It has been great in getting the word out and generating support for our new School of Freshwater Sciences and the building addition to the WATER Institute.

“The Water Council serves to get the right people together in the same room, and then they start making connections. The results have been really positive.”

Added Shafer, “We have seen a lot of energy among the private side and public side, as well as individuals, in promoting clean water. We see people focused on protecting Lake Michigan, making wise investments and building the economy. It has been exciting to be part of the metamorphosis and I am hoping for many great things in the future.”

Jim Rush is the editor of Water Finance & Management.

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