Ten years ago John Austin, currently director of the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas Foundation, started asking this question: “What would be the economic impact of cleaning up the Great Lakes?” After two years, Austin and his colleagues at the Brookings Institution came up with an estimate: $50 billion to $80 billion. “If you restore water, if you clean it and if you reconnect to it, it’s a huge economic development engine,” Austin said.

If water had powered the industrial economy, why couldn’t it power a modern economy as well? In Michigan, leaders talk about a “blue economy,” everything from reviving waterfronts to lakefront tourism to new technology that cleans, treats or saves water. In Wisconsin, they’re also linking water and economic revitalization. Nowhere are they testing the idea of a water tech economy more urgently than Milwaukee.

Fueled by a trade group called the Water Council, the city is developing a large cluster of companies devoted to solving the world’s water woes, bolstered by research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. The council is headquartered in a renovated warehouse called the Global Water Center, just off the Menomonee River, a waterway central to the city’s industrial history.

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