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Great Lakes neighbor bullish on fresh water

MILWAUKEE – This is a town that understands water.

People flock to new and renovated downtown apartments with riverfront views. Its waterfront along Lake Michigan is accessible for miles on end. Its mayor talks about its “Fresh Coast” location. Its municipal sewer system is internationally recognized for its water conservation. It has one of only three graduate-level studies in freshwater sciences in the world.

Give credit to where it’s originally due: beer. And tanneries. And other big users of water that more than a century ago provided the opening for today’s water opportunities.

As New York State and especially Western New York look at access to vast freshwater supplies as a possible engine for attracting people and jobs, the region’s educators, scientists, business leaders and politicians might do well to take lessons from a Great Lakes shore city that has a track record.

Milwaukee is a community that understands the concept that the abundant supply of water can be a driver of economic activities as worsening droughts grip other parts of the nation and the world.

To talk with Milwaukee businessman Richard A. “Rich” Meeusen is to talk water. A sampling:

• The price per 1,000 gallons of residential water averages about $4 in the United States, $7 in Canada and $9 in Europe.

• Fifteen percent of water shipped from a pumping station is lost along the way in aging pipe systems.

• Another 15 percent is lost between the time used water leaves the home and returns after being cleaned.

Like Buffalo, Milwaukee has a long history of businesses tied to the Great Lakes. But in Milwaukee, city and state officials, along with academic and business interests, have been spending time, money and effort to build on an expanding water-based economy.

How did this happen? “The simple answer: It’s the beer,” Dean Amhaus, president of the Water Council, said of the city’s long brewing tradition that brought together big users of water with companies offering everything from meters to water heaters. There were, of course, many other factors that pushed Milwaukee to see the potential of a burgeoning water technology sector, including the 1972 Clean Water Act changes that forced pollution-dumping companies to change their ways. That law, in turn, provided inroads to firms involved in measuring and monitoring water.

In the last year, 24 delegations from countries including South Korea, China and Brazil visited the Global Water Center on Freshwater Way, near the banks of the Menomonee River, the Hank Aaron walking trail and the Harley-Davidson Museum.

Wisconsin economic-development officials say their statewide policy is not about shouting out to drought regions about the water supplies of the Great Lakes. Yes, companies and people from drought areas will move to the Great Lakes at some unknown pace, said Lee Swindall, vice president of business and industry development for Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. But as a state policy, he said, “It’s not that we avoid saying we have abundant water, but we don’t mercilessly exploit that advantage.”

Instead, Swindall said, Wisconsin sees its future in a diversified economy that includes increasing growth to Milwaukee’s water technology sector.

In a conference room at the Water Council, Meeusen is on a roll:

• He facetiously wishes anyone luck in trying to undo the Great Lakes Compact, the state and federal agreement signed in 2008, that protects water diversion outside the lakes’ basin.

• He rails against population growth in desert areas of the United States and the coming “drastic action” to protect water resources.

• He questions why Americans in drought areas would feel relief at the mere sight of rain.

• He talks of the need for Midwesterners – like Buffalonians – to overcome an “inferiority complex.”

• And he dismisses environmental fears that the Great Lakes could not sustain a major industrial rebirth. The lessons of the past, he says, have been learned. “Pretty much everybody has gotten religion that you can’t run a sustainable business running crap into the river behind your plant. Any businessman would be nuts to run that kind of risk,” said Meeusen, chairman of the Water Council and chairman, president and CEO of Badger Meter, which was founded in 1905 and flourishes today selling water metering and other devices to utilities, municipalities and private businesses around the world.

Meeusen even has a dig for some homeowners, including himself, with private water wells. He notes that 20 percent of U.S. homes run off wells. “In theory, the water belongs to me, and I could run a damn Pepsi bottling operation in my garage,” he says. “The flaw is, if people pump all the water in their house and run dry, we do not charge them for water even though I may be pumping it from miles away. I have no incentive to conserve water.”

Solutions, he is asked?

Perhaps a charge for water well residents, or mandating gauges that shut off lawn sprinklers if it starts raining. Or, holding up his cellphone, he offers a Badger Meter innovation: an application that shows his home’s water use sent via a radio transmitter atop his water tank.

Meeusen is passionate that Great Lakes communities, especially Milwaukee, increase water-fueled opportunities as drought-level conditions continue and are predicted for decades to come in major population centers of the world.

“Either economics are going to drive people back to the Great Lakes water basin … or regulations,” he says. “What happens, for example, when you live in Phoenix and your daughter wants to build a house near you and she’s told there’s no more housing permits?”

The answer, he says, is a return of people to the Great Lakes.

“We will always have the water supply here, and now the technology for how to use it wisely,” Meeusen says. “I think there’s a big opportunity.”