Water groups throughout the nation are aiming to provide networking and innovation as they blaze a trail for the future of the world’s most important natural resource.

In today’s volatile political arena, water is perhaps more important than it has ever been. And with new regulations and technological changes — both good and bad — likely looming on the horizon, now is the time to protect the world’s most crucial natural resource.

Creating a culture around the importance of water has led to the increased development of formalized water clusters nationwide. These groups are so vital that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now has an entity to oversee them.

Sally Gutierrez is director of the EPA’s Environmental Technology Innovation Cluster Program, and she says the new effort seeks to advance environmental protection in tandem with economic development through the formation of public-private partnerships.

“EPA believes that clusters focused on environmental technology have a vital role in addressing the nation’s environmental challenges,” says Gutierrez. “Clusters spur innovation, accelerate the development of new technologies and streamline the adoption of new technologies.”

In the past decade, organized water clusters have grown incrementally, according to Melinda Kruyer, executive director of Confluence, a water technology information center for the Ohio River Valley. Kruyer says that when Confluence formed in 2011, there were two other clusters in Fresno, California, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now there are 18 recognized clusters working on everything from aging infrastructures and algal blooms to water scarcity and business incubation.

“The concept is something that took off in Europe over 10 years ago,” says Kruyer. “There is not one specific model. We’re as different as our cities and municipalities are.”

The EPA’s involvement

While the EPA group disseminates best practices in cluster development, connects clusters to EPA programs and encourages collaboration, it serves primarily an advisory role. Regions looking at starting a water cluster can find information on the EPA website at www.epa.gov/clusters-program.

“Water clusters form through community-led processes of evaluation and consideration of expected success,” says Gutierrez. The process usually involves three stages — evaluating the region, engaging stakeholders and building an organization.

While the number of clusters has been growing, that’s not necessarily an opening for every region to do the same. “Not every place in the country should be a cluster,” says Richard Seline, executive director and senior advisor of AccelerateH2O, a non-profit water cluster in Texas.

“It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be doing something in water technology,” he says. “It’s about scope and scale. Every location in the country does not have every or all of the similar assets. [They should] focus on their most significant strengths and challenges and demands to be successful for something that is very simple — what it is that their market really needs.”

Accelerate H2O launched about two years ago, and they weren’t originally formed as a cluster, according to Seline. The region was trying to be more strategic about missions.

“The reality is that water is a significant underpinning of economic development, and to some degree, it’s been taken for granted,” he says.

AccelerateH2O is working on launching an online water innovation clearinghouse and collaborator to find a digital platform to connect researchers and host academic expertise. They’ve also launched seven regional hubs throughout the state — each with its own series of assets — and recently began a collaboration with five states in the Gulf Coast.

“We are quite collaborative with other places that have similar challenges,” says Seline.

Milwaukee’s success

One of the first water clusters in the nation was in Milwaukee — a city brimming with a history full of water’s importance, thanks to the region’s brewing, tanning and meatpacking industries.

Meghan Jensen, director of marketing and membership for The Water Council, says Milwaukee’s history in water technology and innovation is what has set it apart from other cities.

“Being so close to Lake Michigan, we can use it for our research,” she says. “The density geographically of the 200 water technology companies in Wisconsin — about 160 are in the Milwaukee region.”

Kruyer, of Confluence in Ohio, praises Milwaukee’s involvement in the water industry. “Milwaukee is raising the bar so high,” she says. “Leadership in the region absolutely gets it.”

The formation of Milwaukee’s water cluster was driven by industry, and the catalysts, Jensen says, were Rich Meeusen, president of Badger Meter, and Paul Jones, retired president of A. O. Smith. They both remain on the board of directors. The first Water Summit was convened in 2007, and since then, Milwaukee has developed Global Water Center I.

“That was a milestone,” says Jensen. “We found that we had more than 40 international delegations visiting us every year to better understand and connect with our water technology department.”

The region also has the nation’s only school of Freshwater Sciences (at UW-Milwaukee), as well as its own water technology park, which is home to Zurn Industries, the water management platform of Rexnord Corp.

Jensen adds that The Water Council has a new chief technology officer, Dr. David Garman, to lead the ICE (Innovation Commercialization Exchange) Institute, a nationwide scouting team that identifies and catalogs relevant research in water. “It’s a partnership between us and UWM,” she says.

Another region fully vested in water is the Ohio River Valley. Cincinnati sits atop the trillion-gallon Great Miami Buried Valley Aquifer, and the city is home to the U.S. EPA’s Andrew W. Breidenbach Environmental Research Center, a leader in water research, bio-remediation and pollution prevention. According to Kruyer of Confluence, the Greater Cincinnati region also has more water patents per capita than any other region in the country.

Confluence works with about 250 different companies and organizations. “Water technology is really ready for a disruptive technology,” says Kruyer. “It truly is going to be one of the new frontiers.”

“We really provide connections…to be able to pool folks together…so that it does expedite the commercialization process for water technology,” says Kruyer.

Different regions, different issues

Water clusters, while often collaborative, have many of their own distinct issues. While most might deal with pollution and climate change, some regions have specific issues, such as drought in California or an overabundance of water in Louisiana. That state’s group, for example, formed out of the post-Hurricane Katrina era.

Founded in 2009, the Louisiana Water Economy Network (LWEN) is a more informal cluster, founded after a series of conversations. Grasshopper Mendoza, coordinator of LWEN, says those conversations started a process of enlightenment.

“The genesis of the partnership was public/private…water as an asset and living with water,” she says. “LWEN works to connect and support the state’s seven water sectors, which include maritime ports, municipal water/sewer, agriculture, fisheries and more.”

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