Water Works taps into marketing
City sees abundance of clean water as economic development tool
By David Niles, of SBT
Milwaukee’s abundant supply of clean water is being marketed in a new economic development effort of the city’s Water Works.
The recent hiring of Rosalind Rouse as marketing director for the utility is a turning point for a city that is now boldly proclaiming the quality and abundance of Lake Michigan-supplied Milwaukee water.
"We’re ready," said Carrie Lewis, superintendent of the Milwaukee Water Works, a self-financing business enterprise and division of the Department of Public Works.
Rouse’s hiring comes at the culmination of five years of repositioning of the utility as a business model.
"We spent the last five years engaging as many efficiencies as we could," Lewis said. "Now that we have realized those efficiencies, it’s time to take advantage of the opportunities."
And the hiring comes 10 years after water-borne cryptosporidium sickened thousands and led to the deaths of between 50 and 100 people in the community.
On the heels of that outbreak, the city spent $89 million in plant and process improvements over the last 10 years, Rouse notes.
"We’re now producing what is probably the best-quality water you can get in the US," said Skip Schifalacqua. commissioner of the Department of Public Works.
"On the quality side, we have a lot going for us," Lewis said. "We’re very fortunate to have such a clean source of water." And that water, brought in from pipes extending two miles into the lake, is then further purified. "We look hard to find any contaminants in the water, but we don’t find them very often. We’re required to test for 90 contaminants, but we test for 450."
It’s time to tell the world about that quality, Lewis said.
"We have a new-found confidence to let business and industry know that we have a resource here that is under-recognized and under-rated."
Not only high-quality water, but lots of it. And lots of treatment capacity.
In the late 1970s, Milwaukee was treating and supplying 53 billion gallons of water per year. With the loss of breweries and tanneries, and with the gains in usage efficiencies, the city now treats and supplies 40 billion gallons per year.
Which means there is room for more business within its distribution zone, which extends into eastern Waukesha County.
"My aim is to provide an outreach to business retention and economic development," Rouse said. "So that when there are local, regional or even national economic development initiatives – that our drinking water and the supply of it is considered one of the assets on the list of why Milwaukee is a great place to do business."
She’s already had successes in getting the water supply listed by Forward Wisconsin as part of that organization’s business development initiatives.
Locally, she is visiting business users. And she is working "to resolve a case of mistaken identity. "We need to build awareness that we are the people on the supply end of the water cycle," Rouse said, adding that there is frequent confusion between the water-supplying Water Works and the wastewater-treating Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District.
Regionally, the utility is providing water to 14 communities and, starting next summer, will add New Berlin to that list.
But Lake Michigan water can only be supplied to areas east of the subcontinental divide, which in the New Berlin and Brookfield areas is at Sunnyslope Road.
Declining water tables in rapidly growing areas west of the divide mean limited development opportunities there, with current developments taxing that situation even more, says Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy, who proposed the Water Works marketing effort. Murphy, who holds a degree in geological sciences, notes that the massive Pabst Farms land in Oconomowoc now serves as an aquifer recharger and that the ongoing development of that land will further reduce water availability in western Waukesha County.
There have been predictions by public officials and geologists that western Waukesha County will face severe water shortages in 15 to 20 years.
"Even with treatment upgrades, there is a limited supply there," Schifalacqua said of western Waukesha County.
And then there are the water supply challenges in western states.
That all gives the Milwaukee Water Works an opportunity to present the community as a place to locate water-dependent businesses, Schifalacqua says, noting water prices here are as good or better than cities of comparable size or bigger.
But while prices here are favorable, a recent study by MMSD found that reliability of service is more important to many businesses than lower rates. And that leads back to the supply abundance that the Water Works has to offer, Rouse says.
"We need to retain water-using business that are here and try to attract businesses that use water," Murphy said. "We want to make sure they know we have an abundant supply. Water availability will again become an important consideration for business location."
While it would be good to attract more water-dependent industry, Rouse is also looking at the little things. "I hear people say we should be bottling Milwaukee water," she says, noting that Oak Creek already does that with its Lake Michigan water.
Or providing empty bottles. That’s what she’s seen in Denver, where participants in marathons and other runs get sealed, empty bottles which runners then fill themselves. Rouse speculates about providing such bottles with Milwaukee water labels.
"With Milwaukee sitting next to this massive supply of clean water, it’s hard to see commercially-bottled water being passed out at running events," Rouse says.
But some of that bottled water is Milwaukee water. As it does in other markets, Coca Cola’s bottling plant on the city’s northwest side bottles Milwaukee water sold under the Dasani label, Rouse and Lewis note. The company further filters the water and adds minerals. And other commercially bottled waters are filled with municipally supplied water elsewhere.
Oct. 17, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee