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Great Lakes Article:

Looking to Soak Up Lake's Potential
By John Schmid
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published June 24, 2006

Tap water drawn from Lake Michigan and specially filtered at a Coca-Cola plant in Milwaukee sells for $1.59 a bottle. Brand name: Dasani.

Fertilizer pellets made from the city's sewage bring in $7 million a year. Brand name: Milorganite.

A Brookfield company founded in 2002 makes sensors that measure the chemicals in water. Sales already have hit $1 million a year, with significant growth in Asia, particularly China. Name: AquaSensors LLC.

All are examples of how the Milwaukee region has commercialized a resource that local leaders say is critical to the area's future: the fresh water of the Great Lakes.

"Scientists and engineers from all over the world should be banging on our doors to learn of what we are developing here," Carlos Santiago, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said in a speech this month. "We should be teaching the world about efficient freshwater usage."

But much of the region only recently has begun to recognize that Lake Michigan amounts to a strategic asset. While the Milwaukee area has the potential to capitalize on freshwater research in the way that Madison is pioneering stem-cell technology and San Jose, Calif., helped grow the Internet, industrialists and researchers alike concur that this region needs to expand its research facilities and the ranks of scientists studying the lake.

"In the context of water resources, our infrastructure is close to being obsolete," Santiago said.

To promote Lake Michigan as a competitive advantage, some 200 politicians, business leaders and university researchers gathered at a conference June 15 at the just-opened Discovery World museum on Milwaukee's lakefront.

"Our region has a golden opportunity to be the world's laboratory," Jeffrey Browne, president of the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum think tank, told the conference.

UWM out in front
So far, the region has barely begun to sound out the vastness of the opportunities.

UWM has led the way with its Great Lakes WATER Institute, which calls itself the largest academic water research facility on the Great Lakes. It has 13 full-time staff scientists, $4 million in research funding and is respected for its ecological research. But its main research vessel, the Neeskay, was built in 1953 and looks more like a tugboat than a floating Jacques Cousteau-style laboratory.

"There is an opportunity," said J. Val Klump, the institute's director.

The first step, he said, is to own the definitive ecological data as the lakes undergo important and possibly permanent changes.

UWM aims to follow up on findings by the U.S. Geological Survey, which found trace amounts of contraceptives and other pharmaceuticals in the nation's surface water - chemicals that could be changing the delicate balance of nature. The university's researchers recently developed a prototype buoy with sensors that collect aquatic data and continuously radio it to the scientists. They intend to create a network of remote sensors across the Great Lakes.

As meteorologists debate global warming, Klump wants to measure the impact of rising atmospheric temperatures on the lakes. His institute is raising $12 million for a new research boat. It has plans to expand into the unused half of a big facility in Milwaukee's inner harbor that UWM acquired from the Allen-Bradley Co., which built it in 1965 as a ceramic tile manufacturing plant.

Still, Klump admits that water technology and engineering, which could be a hotbed of research, "aren't areas that we traditionally have been engaged in."

Santiago, an economist who aspires to elevate UWM's status as a research-oriented institution, used the conference to portray Lake Michigan as "a strategic asset" and part of the fabric of the knowledge-worker economy.

Price of siphoning off water
Many in Milwaukee County might take the lake for granted. They live inside a subcontinental divide known as the Great Lakes basin and can use lake water freely because their used water naturally flows back into the lake.

Suburban Waukesha, by contrast, lies on the opposite side of the watershed, and its water supplies are in doubt. It relies on an underground water table that has fallen by nearly 500 feet since the suburbs sprawled westward. As the sandstone aquifer becomes depleted, concentrations of naturally occurring radium in some areas have risen to more than twice the federal limit.

Neither Waukesha nor any of the other communities outside the basin can siphon water off the Great Lakes unless they invest tens of millions of dollars for the conduits to pipe used water back to the lake. Under a worst-case scenario, new businesses could choose to locate away from the western suburbs if water supplies are uncertain. Waukesha's economic engine, which has helped drive growth for southeastern Wisconsin, could slow if the county is left high and dry - undermining the region's competitiveness with it.

"It certainly presents an economic obstacle," said Margaret Farrow, former lieutenant governor who leads the Waukesha County Action Network. Lake research is more important than ever as leaders grapple with increasing scarcity, she said.

Waukesha is hardly alone - water scarcity plagues some 30 nations. Indeed, the scarcity of clean water is an issue from Arizona to the Middle East and China. If clean water could be traded on commodity exchanges, its futures price already would be shooting through the roof.

Some in Milwaukee, recognizing a competitive advantage, are urging the area to market itself more aggressively as an ideal site for "wet industries" that need abundant and reliable water supplies.

An example: The city-owned water utility, Milwaukee Water Works, sells tap water to a Coca-Cola Enterprises bottling plant on the city's northwest side. The plant, in turn, filters the water in a three-stage process and resells it in shimmering bottles under the Dasani brand.

"The water that makes your mouth water," is how Coke promotes Dasani. "Cool, vibrant . . . as basic as breathing."

Cynics could argue that the Dasani deal means Milwaukee already "diverts" water out of the watershed. In a way, the city has exported lake water ever since German-born brewers began fermenting it in the 19th century. Both Coca-Cola and Miller Brewing Co. rank among a diverse group of high-volume water users, along with GE Healthcare and MasterLock.

Water Works also sells Lake Michigan water to We Energies, the utility arm of Wisconsin Energy Corp., at 80 cents for every 1,000 gallons. We Energies turns around and resells it for $4.14 per 1,000 gallons to two northern suburbs, Mequon and Thiensville, which both lie inside the basin, the utility said. The state utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, approved the arrangement after We Energies financed 60 miles of pipeline.

Opportunities abroad
Ultimately, though, the Great Lakes could offer southeastern Wisconsin an advantage in an even broader context.

China, which sacrificed its environment to growth for decades, presents a vast opportunity. Newcomers to China quickly learn to avoid using tap water for brushing their teeth, much less drinking, because many of the nation's industries routinely dump raw sewage into its rivers. The communist government concedes that 190 million residents drink water that is so contaminated, it makes them sick. About 100 of its cities face extreme water shortages.

Milwaukee's history of water-management entrepreneurship dates to 1926, when the city opened the Jones Island water treatment plant. It was the first city in the nation to clean sewage water by converting effluvia into sludge. In the same year, the city sold its first bag of Milorganite - a natural fertilizer made by heating the sludge into pellets.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District continues to sell 42,000 tons of the city's pelletized sewage coast to coast. Annual sales: $7 million.

Top-rated professional golf courses such as Whistling Straits in Kohler use it because it greens but won't burn the turf, the MMSD said. The district even ships a few thousand tons a year to Europe, Canada and Mexico.

A Chinese delegation toured Jones Island four years to learn how Milorganite is made.

Not inexhaustible resource
Another who sees the commercial potential of fresh water is Jane Dauffenbach, president of Aquarius Systems. Her environmental engineering firm in suburban North Prairie makes equipment that cleans harbors, rivers and reservoirs and sells it in China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan and Wisconsin.

Many continue to see water as a nearly inexhaustible resource - but that's a mistake, Dauffenbach said.

Although 71% of the world is covered with water, only 3% of that qualifies as drinkable, non-salt fresh water. Of the world's fresh water, 80% is frozen at the North or South poles.

"Imagine a 1-liter bottle of liquid representing all the water in the world," Dauffenbach said. "Only one drop from that bottle represents the fresh water supply available to all of us here on Earth."

And 20% of that fresh water is at Milwaukee's doorstep, in the Great Lakes.

"We have more of it than China does," Browne said. "And that's what I call a competitive advantage."

From the June 25, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


 

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