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 3
Milwaukee’s water cluster, in addition to producing and selling products that mitigate various 21st Century water challenges, also governs, protects and monitors the area’s water resources. Governments and nonprofits regulate and monitor our area streams, rivers and lakes. Private companies provide market-based solutions to water users both big and small. The cluster, through The Water Council, has developed a 98, 000 square foot office and research facility and helped to attract a global headquarters – Zurn Industries – to the Reed Street Yards (RSY). This will bring approximately 150 new jobs to an empty swath of land south of downtown, and there are plans to develop more water technology buildings. The site is a former industrial brownfield – a legacy of Milwaukee’s heavily polluted past. RSY has since been remediated with the goal to turn this mostly empty space into a hub of freshwater research and business. The near south side business park is an example of how public-private partnerships can have a real place-based economic impact. The Water Council also has other initiatives that produce solutions that aim reuse/replace and improve deteriorating urban infrastructure, remediate the historic legacies of pollution in the Rust Belt, and mitigate environmental problems that affect urban water resources.
The Water Council’s BREW Accelerator and Pilot Program have made strides in launching new businesses that provide better methods for on-site treatment of industrial/agricultural wastewater and drinking water as well as testing and treating drinking water for harmful contaminants. The Water Council is also serving as the Global headquarters for the Alliance for Water Stewardship North America (AWS), which has been working with water-intensive companies like Coca Cola and McDonald’s to get them to adopt stricter water use and reuse practices that not only save money but also save water for everyone else. All of these efforts seek to solve water issues using both public (government) and private (industry) knowledge. Even so, Wisconsin’s water cluster has only recently begun to develop in as cohesive a manner as it has. Communication and collaboration between companies, nonprofits and governments, while a fairly recent phenomenon, is rapidly becoming the norm both locally and nationally; and cities are realizing they can no longer take water for granted.
With increasing water stress comes increasing pressure and incentive to change wasteful economic practices. Milwaukee is blessed to have numerous water resources, but not all cities are so fortunate. Las Vegas, for example, is often cited as the epitome of a water-stressed city that is also experiencing impressive amounts of population growth. As author of The Big Thirst Charles Fishman notes, certain parts of Vegas, casinos, golf courses and well-manicured lawns, pose greater threats to its water resource (Lake Mead) than others. Fishman points to industry-based change in Las Vegas that has helped the city use less water. Laundry facilities at hotels now reuse their own wastewater, cutting down their water and energy bills meanwhile conserving Lake Mead water. Golf courses have been ripping up grass in exchange for desert landscaping and residents are being encouraged to do the same. Casinos have found that it is more cost effective to reuse water for their dramatic water features – like the fountains at Bellagio. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, a regional water government, was created in response to growing local political tension over competition for scarce water resources. All of these efforts have helped Vegas conserve 7.7 billion gallons of water per year. The city now uses less water now than it did in the 1990’s, despite more than doubling its population since 1995. (Fishman 51-71). Water defines Las Vegas’ very existence, and industry realized that water is not the guarantee it used to be. But Vegas is just one example, water defines any human settlement. If there is no water, there are no people. Industry is now beginning to see the critical role it plays in securing water not just for business and commerce, but for everyone else too. Fishman writes, “Even for companies, like Coke, that are utterly water dependent, thinking about water strategically, in detail, is new” (121).
Gone are the days when residents and business turned on the tap and did not ask questions. In places like Las Vegas and Milwaukee, it is private and public cooperation that has led the charge to water-wise thinking in the 21st century. And at The Water Council in Milwaukee, I have been blessed to be a part of that effort for more than three years.