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
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
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
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.
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
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