Milwaukee's nascent water-research hub may benefit from Obama executive order

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UWM School of Freshwater Sciences

So is Milwaukee a tired, rustbelt industrial city with no modern technological base? Not really.

After the waterborne cryptosporidium crisis in 1993, Milwaukee moved light years toward better treatment of its drinking water, which had sickened hundreds of thousands after being contaminated by tough, little-known parasites that thrived on organic wastes running off into the lake. That incident led to a realization that Milwaukee and other shoreline cities in both Canada and the US need to better protect the Great Lakes, which contain 20 percent of the planet's fresh water.

Milwaukee has always had more than its share of water-related industries (look up Badger Meter, to take one example) and has always had a greater than average interest in water quality, notwithstanding the unexpected "crypto" invasion, but that '93 scare kickstarted the city's existing interests and turned them into an economic development crusade.

Milwaukee's burgeoning role in worldwide water quality research and development is quite likely to benefit from an announcement made today (July 18, 2013) by the Committee for an American Clean Energy Agenda (ACEA). What's the relationship between clean energy and pure water? It's bigger than you might think. ACEA announced it had submitted a draft executive order to the White House for the president's consideration. The order makes water a national priority along with clean-energy initiatives: 

s composed by ... [ACEA], the draft executive order titled, Identification of Critical Water Resources and Mitigation of Water Use Competition in Vulnerable Watersheds, would require the completion of a long-overdue national water census, the first "US Water Budget" and a plan for a shift by 2030 from fossil fuel and nuclear power to clean energy, increased energy efficiency, and enhanced energy storage technologies within key watersheds identified by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The Environmental Working Group of EcoWatch says the mission, as it would be translated into action by an executive order, "prevents degradation of the environment, protects public health, preserves access to clean water, sustains the electric grid and combats global climate change, all while laying the basis for an adequate standard of living for today's populations and future generations."

Milwaukee arguably is the city best poised to lead this effort. The city and the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee have in the past several years made vast headway in the direction of better water science and new water technologies by forming a public-private partnership devoted to water research and commercialization of new techniques that deal with water resources in an environmentally responsible way. The city is now recognized internationally as one of a select few World Water Hubs, entirely appropriate since the city's very name, taken from the Algonquian language, means "gathering place by the water," a reference to the way native tribes and European settlers traded and conferenced in what would become Wisconsin's largest city.

Milwaukee's strengths include:

• More than 150 water technology companies.
• Great Lakes WATER Institute, largest freshwater research institute on the lakes. The institute has a large marine research vessel, one that even undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau might have found useful, along with a number of smaller watercraft.
• UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, first such academic institution in the nation; that's bookended by a water-related law program at Marquette University Law School.
• Milwaukee Water Council, which coordinates and promotes the city's efforts.
• More than 100 academic scientists and researchers focused on water solutions.
• Designation as a UN Global Compact City, recognized internationally as a center of freshwater expertise.

The WATER Institute (see image at top of this article) and a Global Water Center a few blocks away are both located in newly expanded quarters along separate Milwaukee Harbor riverfronts.

As rivers and lakes worldwide recede due to droughts and hotter climate, as fresh-water wells dry up and other water resources become polluted or overused, all this expertise will be critical, not just to Milwaukee's own economy, but to human civilization in general. Either we take care of our resources or they'll stop taking care of us.

All that remains to be seen is whether Gov. Scott Walker and his cabal of generally anti-environment Republicans in the state legislature keep deregulating pollution-control and water-preservation laws, as they've most recently done with mining regulations, wetlands deregulation, and corporate boons allowing massive drilling of deep-acquifer water wells. It's all another high-speed fail in the making.

Wisconsin is a state that has always enjoyed unusually blessed water resources, including two Great Lakes, 15,000 inland lakes, major rivers including the mighty Mississippi and favorable precipitation. But all those amazing assets could be compromised without careful attention to growing, ever more thirsty populations seeking more recreational opportunities, along with industrial and agricultural processes that use massive amounts of water and don't often treat their effluents back to original purity, much less draw water wisely.

Ask parched Arizona or California if pure water is a vital issue; then ask them if they could use our help, for better and not for worse.

ADDENDUMI mentioned Badger Meter above. That firm is a world leader in remote metering of utility systems, which saves money and allows operators to better manage their networks and pipelines in real time. Unsurprisingly, this is another situation where today's breed of ultraconservative Republican just doesn't get it. State Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac) recently introduced his Smart Meter “Opt-Out” bill. The measure would allow Wisconsin residents to opt-out of "mandated" smart meter installation -- whatever he thinks "mandated" means. Thiesfeldt says this law will protect citizen privacy, but it what it does mostly is create higher utility bills, as meter readers will again have to take to the streets and come into customer homes or yards, instead of remotely sensing meter information. It will also reduce system reliability, not to mention harming a successful, largely Milwaukee-based industry. Fearmongering is always expensive, if politically advantageous on occasion. Thanks, Jeremy! Not.