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How Milwaukee Became a Center for Water Innovation

The world needs water. Milwaukee not only has lots of it, but it also has transformed itself into a hub for water research and technology.

This 18-acre brownfield, Reed Street Yards, will soon be home to a water research park. (Photo: Flickr/Jeramey Jannene)

Milwaukee doesn’t have a water problem. It never has; the Milwaukee area has access to lots of water. It sits along the shores and bluffs of Lake Michigan, at the confluence of three rivers -- the Menomonee, the Kinnickinnic and the Milwaukee.

The rest of the world, on the other hand, has a very real water problem: More than a billion people across the globe lack access to safe drinking water.

The world needs water, and Milwaukee has it. More specifically, Milwaukee has water innovation. So the city is transforming itself from an old industrial center into a center for water research and technology.

Read the May issue of Governing magazine.  

The idea was the brainchild of two local CEOs. During a meeting in 2006, it occurred to them that Milwaukee was home to more than 130 water-related companies, including their own companies: A.O. Smith, which produces water heaters, and Badger Meter, which makes water meters. The two executives convened a meeting of local companies and civic leaders; the group quickly coalesced around making Milwaukee into a “water hub.”

To oversee the effort, they created the Water Council, a nonprofit organization that brings together the region’s water industries and universities. From there, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), with $50 million in state backing, created the School of Freshwater Sciences in 2011, the only graduate program of its kind in the country. “There is nothing else like this in the United States at all,” says Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of the Water Council. “The goal is create a world hub that grows companies and entrepreneurs [focused on] developing ways to use water more efficiently and return it at a high quantity and quality.”

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The whole effort will be headquartered in an old industrial area in southeast Milwaukee, adjacent to downtown. Ultimately, the water campus will consist of a business accelerator and water research and technology park, as well as commercial and residential developments. The Water Council will move in first -- as early as this July -- taking up residence in a newly renovated seven-story, 100-year-old building. It will share the space with water-related companies, UWM and six startups that are part of a six-month state-funded program. Each startup gets $50,000 for initial costs; after six months, they’ll be replaced by another group of new startups. The idea is to churn out one new company after another.

The real standout in the effort is Reed Street Yards, an 18-acre brownfield site adjacent to the Water Council building. It will be home to the water research and tech park, where companies and the School of Freshwater Sciences will tackle projects that include the development of sensors to monitor water safety, the piloting of technologies to remove radium from groundwater and research into how to disinfect stormwater runoff.

The plan is to make Reed Street Yards self-sustaining and replicable. In other words, the entire development will one day be “off the grid,” or water-neutral. It will also be capable of producing energy in excess of what it needs to run. “What we want to be able to do is create an area -- a water showcase -- that shows places where there are water shortages what they can do,” says Amhaus.

From the start, the initiative has been driven by the private sector. Everyone involved agrees it works best that way, and should stay that way. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett even admitted to Forbes that, “If it had started at the public end, we would be hustling to get private-sector involvement.” Still, the city has been a supportive partner, says Amhaus. “It’s allowed for much more flexibility.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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