Author sees bright future for Milwaukee water hub

Most Americans don’t think twice when we turn on the tap and drink a glass of fresh, clean water.
For billions of others in the world, the procurement of drinking water is a daily chore that often involves carrying the water great distances. That chore is often performed by the women in Third World countries.

Given the scarcity of fresh drinking water around the world, Charles Fishman thinks Milwaukee’s effort to become the “World Water Hub for water research, economic development and education” is a winning concept with a bright future.

Fishman, a journalist and author of “The Big Thirst; the Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water,” is predicting an “incredible age of creativity” in the procurement, conservation and treatment of water.
That puts the Milwaukee Water Council squarely on a promising path of economic development in this new “revolution,” according to Fishman, who recently spoke to Tempo Milwaukee.

However, Fishman warned that the development of the Milwaukee cluster concept will not happen overnight.

“Silicon Valley did not happen overnight. One guy did not build Silicon Valley, and they didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘Now we are the Silicon Valley.'”

Fishman said, “You guys have two kinds of water wealth… Milwaukee has double the capacity of water that needs. That is a huge economic lever… That should be a great economic attractor. The second advantage is this heritage you have.”

Aside from its geographic location on Lake Michigan, Milwaukee’s fresh water legacy and infrastructure was developed by the city’s beer barons.

The Milwaukee Water Council has identified more than 130 water technology companies in the region. Many of them, such as Badger Meter Inc., were formed to serve the brewing industry in the early 1900s.

Badger Meter CEO Richard Meeusen, the driving force behind the Milwaukee Water Council, says the hub concept ultimately could generate thousands of jobs in the region.

Milwaukee’s water cluster recently received a boost when the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) announced it will invest $750,000 over the next three years to underwrite startup water technology companies’ tenancy costs in the Water Technology Research and Business Accelerator Building in Milwaukee.

The Water Technology Research and Business Accelerator Building is adjacent to the Reed Street Yards. The City of Milwaukee intends to develop the 17-acre parcel into a water technology business park.

The building will include resources to support the water technology industry. For instance, the water technology companies that will occupy the building will have access to a specialized water flow laboratory, which is a common use facility for tenants. This will facilitate the testing of new water technology products, helping advance water technology start-ups.

"The financial support from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. will be critical in helping water technology entrepreneurs establish their new businesses and enable them to focus on hiring the talent they need to grow their operations," said Dean Amhaus, executive director of the Milwaukee Water Council.

The WEDC and Milwaukee Water Council will host a trade mission to India April 22 to May 1 to focus on sales to India’s rapidly expanding water and wastewater market.

Ironically, Fishman now resides in Mexico City, where people cannot safely consume the tap water. The scarcity of fresh drinking water as the world’s population continues to grow will put a premium on water technology, Fishman said.

“Milwaukee is ahead of its time, but it will take time,” Fishman said.

Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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