October 2012, Vol. 24, No.10
Reposted from: WEF.org
Creating an H2O economy
More citites see water in their future
The fashion-conscious crowd assembles every season along the runways in New York and Milan. Coffee drinkers have Brazil to thank for their morning latte, and investors look to Silicon Valley when they want to know what’s next in computing.
If Milwaukee and Cincinnati have their way, they, too, will soon have international reputations as industry leaders — only they will be the go-to experts for something slightly more ubiquitous: water.
Both are among a small but growing number of U.S. cities that are planning their futures around a water-based economy. By marshaling existing local water know-how and investing in water sector research, these cities hope to distinguish their own water management systems while also spurring the development of technologies that can be exported to water-challenged municipalities, industries, and agricultural operations elsewhere.
In doing so, they’re following the leads of such nations as Singapore and Israel, where perennial water shortages have made water conservation both a way of life and a powerful driver of economic growth, according to Eileen O’Neill, deputy executive director of the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.).
“Singapore is using the environment as a living lab to push water technology and show what can be done,” O’Neill said. “In Australia, Israel, and the Netherlands [which suffers from rising sea levels], they are turning water challenges into opportunities … using advanced thinking on the future of where water is headed.”
Their efforts are having ripple effects outside the water industry. “We are beginning to recognize that the way a city manages its water can give it a competitive edge as a place where people want to live and industry wishes to locate,” O’Neill said.
Milwaukee: Getting to know its own strength
In Milwaukee, innovative thinking at a local university helped the local sewer district restore a contaminated local beach, strengthening a partnership that continues to bear fruit today.
That project began in the mid-2000s, when University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee researcher Sandra McLellan sought to find the source of the Escherichia coli bacteria that frequently polluted the city’s Bradford Beach, according to David Garmin, who heads the university’s 2-year-old Freshwater Sciences School. By studying the genetic markers in the bacteria, McLellan traced the contamination directly to stormwater outfalls along the beach and other sources.
“Her research enabled MMSD [Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District] to pinpoint the problems and fix them at a fraction of the cost of making wholesale changes,” Garmin said. It also later led to investments by the university and MMSD in a new genomics center that is used to study complex microbial communities in the environment and to track sources of pollution.
Since that time, Milwaukee’s freshwater research community has joined with more than 130 area water technology companies — including global plumbing fixture manufacturer Kohler Co. (Kohler, Wis.) and Badger Meter Inc. (Milwaukee), one of the world’s largest water-meter manufacturers — in forming the Milwaukee Water Council. Its aim is to solidify the region’s position as a hub for water research, economic development, and education.
Last spring, the School of Freshwater Sciences broke ground on a new $53 million addition to the Great Lakes Research Facility it operates, Garmin said. Scheduled to open early next year, the water research and business accelerator will house test laboratories for both the school and local private industry. In addition to conducting scientific research, Garmin expects scientists and engineers to conduct research and development related to agriculture and wastewater treatment, working on everything from advanced sensors and recirculation systems to robotics and automatic sampling.
“Until we got everyone together, the water industry here didn’t know its own strength,” Garmin said. “Add in a hugely supportive local sewer district and a committed local government, and we now have the critical mass needed to perform research and move it quickly to commercialization.”
Cincinnati: Removing barriers to commercial success
Streamlining the process for new product development also is key for Confluence, a nonprofit group formed in early 2011 after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Small Business Administration designated the Cincinnati region — including Dayton, Ohio; northern Kentucky; and Southeast Indiana — as a Water Technology Innovation Cluster.
With a $5 million investment from EPA, a 100-year history in water research, and the cooperation of businesses, universities, and government groups, the cluster is focusing on developing, testing, and marketing innovative water processes and technologies.
“It shouldn’t take 10 to 15 years to deploy a new technology,” said Alan Vicory, a principal at Stantec Consulting (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) and chairman of the Confluence board. “That’s why we have strived to understand the barriers to technology development and structured Confluence around eliminating them.”
One of the biggest challenges technology companies face, Vicory said, is proving to others that their technology works. “Companies need test beds to assess the efficacy of their products,” he said. Confluence has coordinated with local water plants, which have agreed to serve this purpose.
Regulatory approval is another hurdle Vicory hopes his group can help streamline. “A municipality can’t use a new technology, no matter how effective it may be, until the states put their stamp of approval on it first,” he explained. The problem is, each state has its own approval process, and it takes time and money for developers to learn and navigate each one.
“If we can get states to harmonize with requirements, that would be huge,” Vicory said. Confluence has a draft agreement in place for Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky that is doing just that.
The group also is organizing forums where technology firms can meet directly with EPA and other regulators. “We want to help facilitate the development of new technologies that support current regulatory policies, as well as keep regulators abreast of technology advances that might drive how new policy is written,” Vicory said.
“This is not just about drinking water,” Vicory said, “but also about food processing and agriculture, sanitation, and recreation. All these things are coming together, and the range of technology needs is immense.”
Taking the long view
There should be no shortage of opportunities for Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and other cities now exploring water-based economies, according to Matt Ries, WEF’s chief technical officer.
“Whether a city has too much or too little water, it can benefit from smarter approaches to water management,” Ries said. “The use of green infrastructure is helpful in places where they’re managing too much water. Smarter ways of managing water and reducing consumption are needed in places where there is a water shortage.”
WEF is taking a lead role in bringing global research and development leaders together to share best practices, collaborate, and increase the international visibility of U.S. efforts, he said.
“Through partnerships with WERF [the Water Environment Research Foundation (Alexandria, Va.)] and LIFT [the Leaders Information Forum for Technology], we are trying to create a more tangible link between leading-edge research and practical implementation,” Ries said. “We intend to provide the forum for them to do so.”
— Mary Bufe, WE&T