The Freshwater Collaborative Hopes to Develop and Tap Water Expertise Within the UW System

Posted by Mary Sussman from Shepherd Express on July 9, 2019

The University of Wisconsin System recently launched a proposal to form the Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin using the collective water expertise of faculty at all 13 UW System campuses. Building on existing strengths, the UW System proposes to create the Freshwater Collaborative to allow students to pursue elite, cross-disciplinary, water-related studies at the 13 campuses. The collaborative would also bring local, regional and global research talent to Wisconsin to help meet the global, regional and local demand for a skilled water workforce that could solve water resource problems here and throughout the world.

Its proponents believe that Wisconsin is a natural choice for becoming a cutting-edge global hub for freshwater education, research and industry. Bordered by the Mississippi River and two Great Lakes, Wisconsin also has 15,000 inland lakes and 44,000 miles of rivers and groundwater assets. In addition to Wisconsin’s academic and natural resources, the state’s economy is water-driven, and it is already an industry leader in water technology.

Water Quality Task Force Holds Public Hearings

The UW System is requesting almost $28 million from the state over the next six years to establish and fund the Freshwater Collaborative. The funds would require legislative approval in late 2019 or 2020. The Water Quality Task Force is holding public hearings around the state to gather information about pressing water quality issues. UW-Milwaukee’s dean of the School of Freshwater Sciences, J. Val Klump, will present the collaborative’s proposal at a public hearing on Thursday, July 11, at 1 p.m. at the Ives Grove Auditorium, 14200 Washington Ave. in Sturtevant. The School of Freshwater Sciences is leading the Freshwater Collaborative initiative.

The Water Quality Task Force, headed by Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), is gathering information from a diverse group of stakeholders and will make policy recommendations to better assess and improve the quality of both surface water and ground water in Wisconsin.

“It is our hope the Water Quality Task Force will endorse the plan and recommend a funding mechanism when the task force completes its work sometime this fall,” says Thomas Lujak, UWM vice chancellor of university relations and communications.

‘Science is Relatively Inexpensive’

“Our focus is training, because the industry is telling us that they are having trouble finding well-trained people,” says Klump. “There is a workforce development piece to this, and that’s what we lead with.” He adds that the water industries support the collaborative’s idea, are looking for talent and are having a difficult time finding well-trained people.

Wisconsin industries are facing significant workforce shortages, and nowhere is this truer than in the water sector, according to the UW System proposal. Water is the fastest growing sector of the world’s economy (about $800 billion annually by 2035) and is fueling a growing demand for hydrologists, ecologists, engineers, modelers, data scientists, aquatic toxicologists, policy analysts, business leaders and others who can understand and anticipate water issues and problems and who can devise, implement and manage solutions. Klump says, however, the research part of the proposal is equally important because Wisconsin has significant water problems.

“We are not alone in that,” he says. “Every state, every country in the world has these problems. If we can augment the existing programs with additional scientists and faculty to tackle these problems, we’ll solve them. We’ll science our way out of these issues. Science is relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of the problems that we face.” He says the expanded research capacity of the collaborative would likely bring in tens of millions of dollars in federal research funding. “It has been said that for every million dollars of research, 20 jobs are created,” Klump says. “There’s an economic multiplier of just conducting the research. The bigger, longer benefit of conducting this work is to come up with solutions to water-related problems, which then morph into businesses and opportunities.”

Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of The Water Council, a global center for advancing water technologies and stewardship located in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward, supports the idea of bringing academic resources together and believes such a collaborative would result in benefits for the state. He says it is important to view funding of the collaborative as an investment. “When you look at the other side, the potential negative impact on things, if there are water issues either in quality or quantity, businesses are literally shut down because they don’t have access to the water,” he explains. “What is the economic cost of that? We saw that in Toledo, Ohio, a couple of years ago when the city was shut down for a couple of days because of water issues. You’ve got to be able to make the investment.”

Though the Freshwater School in Milwaukee is a major player in this proposal, Klump says that it alone does not have all the expertise to deal with the vast array of water problems. “No one institution can do it all. But collectively, you look around the state—and I’ve now visited all 13 campuses—it’s impressive as all get-out,” he says. “So, if a student comes to Milwaukee and is interested in water, they should know something about agriculture and water. Well, we don’t do that here. But Platteville, for example, has a beautiful research farm. They’re doing some really cutting-edge stuff with respect to agriculture.” Klump says students in the program can go to other campuses for a couple of weeks, a semester or a summer. A requirement of the program would be that students spend some time away from their home campuses.

“It would be pretty exciting for a student to enter this program because there would be so many opportunities for them to choose from,” Klump says. “Our hope is that students will see that, and that this will be a huge attractor for students from out of state who would otherwise go to school elsewhere or students who are from the state who would go elsewhere.

Wisconsin is a Global Force for Water

Klump believes that Wisconsin is well-positioned to become a global force for water. Part of the whole idea about the Freshwater Collaborative is collaborating not only among the various campuses but also with the water industry in all aspects. “We strongly support the Freshwater Collaborative, because we believe it is only going to make Wisconsin stronger in the water tech industry globally,” The Water Council’s Amhaus adds. “When you start combining strong academic programs in water with one of the best industries in the world right here in Wisconsin, that’s a really powerful combination. We’re looking for Wisconsin to be the best in the world and to be that ultimate magnet for industry as well as talent. We’re thinking that [the Freshwater Collaborative] is going to strengthen Wisconsin significantly.”

Amhaus also sees benefits from the collaborative in developing new talent and in the research potential to solve problems. He says there’s a relationship between good industry practices and water stewardship and the need for trained water professionals in industry. “Industrial water users are more and more realizing that they need to have trained professionals that become great assets when it comes to their treatment of water,” he says. “You can’t shut down businesses and industries because of their water usage. It would be detrimental to the state’s economy and jobs. But at the same time, those industrial users and farmers can implement practices that can actually solve water issues and, ultimately, save them a lot of money. You’ve got to make that match and connection so that it’s good business sense to be great water stewards.”

The Freshwater Collaborative’s proposal identifies 10 major water challenges faced by Wisconsin and the world that it would address by 2025. These 10 challenges are: agricultural water management, industrial water engineering and technology, water-quality safety and emerging contaminants, Great Lakes management and restoration, water infrastructure (collection, distribution and treatment), water business and finance, watershed management and restoration, water security, protection and resilience, healthy recreational and transportation water use and aquaculture-aquaponics-water food systems. The collaborative would address the challenges in multi-faceted ways through research on water systems, technology innovation, workforce development, science-driven water policy and law and sustainable management of water resources.

The proposal anticipates that by 2025, the Freshwater Collaborative would have 1,400 new undergraduate and graduate water students, 100 new faculty, researchers and water professionals and 23 freshwater professorships across the UW System. Also, it anticipates that the collaborative would attract $10-15 million in new research funding from federal and private agencies, produce 23 intensive, hands-on training programs, 650 jobs and 100 internships with industry.

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