By Colin Flanner, Intern & Student Chapter Liaison for The Water Council
Over the summer, I earned two credits towards my Urban Studies degree at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee while working at The Water Council. During that time I was to write a paper for Urban Studies 489 about the organization, its history and development, its work (in Milwaukee and abroad), as well as my work within the organization. The paper was to detail why The Water Council’s work is particularly important to cities in the 21st century. In a three-part blog series, I’ll be sharing my report with you.
Water in an Urban World: Part 2
As cities like Milwaukee across the Midwest continue to change, they must deal with collective problems that are summed up by the Rust Belt moniker: outdated infrastructure, urban decay and a legacy of industrial prominence that has given way to blue-collar joblessness and pollution. Urban economic growth can be hindered by aging infrastructure that has been neglected for decades.
Generally speaking, urban sprawl means more pressure on aging water infrastructure and more paved spaces that collect toxic chemicals and heavy metals. As it rains, flooding becomes more of an issue as buildings and pavement encroach the natural floodplain, and toxic runoff from city streets flows into local waterways. Milwaukee has a combined sewer system – storm water and human waste share the same pipes – and sometimes during heavy flooding the city is forced to dump untreated sewage into the river. This is why MMSD is seeking to control runoff through decentralized green infrastructure, using plants and natural elements to control water using a place-based and more nature-oriented approach. Cities in the Netherlands – a country mostly below sea level – are finding new ways to cope with rising waters by giving water more places to go. Both Milwaukee and the Netherlands share something in common: they are working with water rather than trying to fight against it with more concrete and vast treatment plants. Water in the urban context is becoming increasingly important as the world continues to rapidly urbanize. In order to make sure cities are water resilient there has to be a change in the world economy that puts water at the center and does not treat it either as an adversary or something that is a given. The Water Council (TWC) and its members have fostered such change in Milwaukee (and across the globe) for the past eight years.
Direct human consumption of water accounts for a mere fraction of the water used in cities. If urban water is to be safeguarded for future generations then there needs to be positive water-oriented change across all sectors in the economy. As a report by the World Health Organization on water and economic development points out,
“Society’s economic sectors, including agriculture, industry and services, rely on water resources and related services. Improved access to water services and improved management of water resources contribute substantially to economic growth through increasing business productivity and development. It also improves human health, productivity and dignity considerably” (“Water Economic Development” 11).
This reality is framed by recent and not-so-recent water problems in various Midwestern cities. Milwaukee, in 1993, was home of the worst outbreak of a water borne illness in U.S. history. Cryptosporidium had made its way past city treatment safeguards and into peoples’ homes; it made hundreds of thousands of people sick. Flint, Michigan (and cities across the USA) was in the news for having toxic levels of lead leaching out of their outdated pipes and into their drinking water. Toledo, Ohio also had its water system shut down due to a toxic algal bloom near the city’s Lake Erie water intake. The economic and human costs of these crises cannot be overstated. However, what is helping push back against these issues is innovation in the ‘blue economy.’ The water utility in Milwaukee adopted better treatment technology and the crypto problem was eventually resolved. Governments are working with researchers and private companies to find ways to resolve the nation-wide lead crisis. Farmers in Ohio are starting to change their practices to prevent fertilizer-laden runoff from fueling toxic algal blooms in Lake Erie. What’s exciting for Milwaukee is that a lot of these solutions are being studied and developed here through collaboration between public and private entities. From Badger Meter to UW-Milwaukee, the region’s water cluster is tapping into a multibillion dollar industry that not only holds promise as a generator of jobs and economic growth, but also as an ecosystem of solutions to some of today’s most pressing water problems.