By: Tammy Tian
It’s quiet on the outskirts of Milwaukee’s harbors.
Tucked in the corner, nestled next to the waves of Lake Michigan, sits the WATER Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Taking a few steps around the building, reveals the undulating blue glass panes of the new $53 million renovation shining with the waves.
“I love it here,” Dylan Olson, a master’s student specializing in Lake Michigan food-ecology at the School of Freshwater Sciences said. His research consists of field studies in the lake. “I feel like I became involved with the school at a very interesting time.”
Collaboration Creates a Focal Point for Milwaukee
The WATER Institute houses the School of Freshwater Sciences. It has been four years since the opening of the school.
The new addition to the WATER Institute and the creation of the School of Freshwater Sciences is a part of a greater initiative: the recreation of Milwaukee’s identity as a world renowned water technology hub set in place by the Water Council, a committee of leaders in business, policy and education to develop the Milwaukee’s water industry.
“I came to Milwaukee because I wanted to be a part of something new,” graduate student in water policy, Emily Tyner said. ” During my field study for my job with the local parks, I met professor Harvey Bootsma. He told me about the new program and now we have this beautiful new renovation. It’s great.”
The WATER Institute has been researching freshwater sciences for more than forty years. The new School of Freshwater Sciences places young professionals in the disciplines of biology, engineering, and policymaking together to push interdisciplinary collaboration.
“I regularly help three other labs with their field and lab work.” Olson said. “In exchange, they come out into the field with me and lend a hand when I need one. It’s pretty cool. Those labs study ecosystem dynamics, biogeochemistry, toxicology, and enthic ecology. So my experience has been relatively diverse”
The School also collaborates with local businesses and agencies to extend the collaboration between the School of Freshwater Sciences and the Greater Milwaukee Communities. Of the 24 graduates since 2014, 10 of them now work within the Milwaukee community as researchers, technicians, business developers, and policymakers.
Tyner said before entering her graduate studies, she never imaged herself to be on the road towards policy.
“At first I was interested in going further with my field research, Tyner said. “Then I began learning about the fundamental laws around the waters like the Great Lakes Compact and the Clean Water Act. “It was like I found the missing piece to a puzzle. I want to make a difference for the community that I am in. I feel that with a background in policy I cam make that happen.”
The mission is to create a focal point for the water-related community in Milwaukee that will establish Milwaukee as the water hub for water research, economic development, and education. In an environment with many different focuses on water, the value of collaboration has been realized. Members from business, policy and education are finding it to be extremely beneficial.
From Manufacturing to Water Technology
According to the Water Council, there were two variables that contributed to the implementation of a successful collaborative water movement in Milwaukee: The fall of Milwaukee’s industrial boom and the Cryptosporidium outbreak in 1993
Some of the nation’s biggest tanneries and breweries were located in Milwaukee. However, in the 1990’s, Milwaukee’s manufacturing industry began to slow down. From the years 1998-2008, the metal manufacturing industry dropped by about 35 percent, leaving behind deserted factories and a dent in Milwaukee’s economy.
Milwaukee was also implementing new procedures for their water works. In 1993, Milwaukee faced a Cryptosporidium outbreak, affecting over 400,000 people. Tiny traces of the parasite passed thought the water filtration system and spread rapidly. The intestinal tract disease caused widespread illness and in some cases death.
Because of this experience, Milwaukee’s water system goes beyond the guidelines set by the EPA. Milwaukee is the only system to have completely metered pipes that regularly monitor water quality.
Milwaukee, a city trying to recover from economic decline, was looking for change. In 2007, a pair of water entrepreneurs, Richard A. Meeusen, President and CEO of Badger Meter, and Paul W. Jones, Past President of AO Smith Corporation, supplied Milwaukee with a vision. They proposed to create the Water Council.
“It started as the two were touring each other’s facilities one day, and (they) realized the synergy their companies had” Meghan Jensen, spokeswomen for the Water Council, said. “Simultaneously other business leaders were discussing the number of water technology companies in the region as well as Milwaukee’s long history in brewing—this was the beginning of something very special.”
Milwaukee desired change. Milwaukee had assets as a leader in water technology, water abundance, and water policy. With Meeusen and Jones leading the way, a group of local policymakers, researchers, academics, and business professions gathered together to plant the seeds for reinvigorating Milwaukee’s economy by developing a ‘world water hub.’
“Our center of excellence is not something that just happened yesterday,” President and CEO of Water Council, Dean Amhous said. “It happened decades ago. By our industries that have long called Wisconsin home.”
There is a coalition between the Greater Milwaukee Council, the City of Milwaukee, local universities (such as the School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee, Water Policy at Marquette University), the Alliance for Water Stewardship, and many other businesses that are coordinating to make policies that allow streamlined development for the community, for the economy, and for the students.
“What’s special about Wisconsin is that we have a highly integrated network and support system that bring industry academia, NGOs, governments, environmental groups all together and support each other,” Amhous said. “Because together we know we are going to grow this cluster together”
Inside a renovated a 1904 manufacturing facility is the Global Water Center, a core structure of the new water movement. The Building currently houses 25 businesses and organizations related to water research, technology, and economic development.
“Something that’s really great about being in Milwaukee is that we’re a part of a greater community of water professionals,” Tyner said. “Some of us graduate students at the School get the chance to work with the businesses at the Global Water Center to develop policy and business plans.”
Inside the Global Water Center, government offices neighbors research labs and business head quarters One of the occupants is the Business Research Entrepreneurship in Wisconsin (BREW) Program, business incubator to kick start new water related innovations.
“Milwaukee is a great place for the development of water technologies and policies, and it is located next to one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world,” said, Ethan Yen, of Madison, WI. Yen is a senior studying environmental engineering at Cornell University.
“The BREW Program for water start-ups is particularly encouraging to me,” Yen said. “It is indeed comforting, from both an environmental engineer’s and a Wisconsinite’s perspective, to see Milwaukee positioning itself as a leader in water innovation in the world. It’s one of the main reasons why I’m looking at jobs near that area.”
Just across the street is the construction of a new water research park, Reed Street Yards. A series of eight buildings, it will be the physical realization of Milwaukee’s center of water innovation. The first office space will be complete in the summer of 2016.
The progress so far
The project has three major components, the partnership with the local universities, The Global Water Center, and the business park at Reed Street Yards. As an infrastructure service, water treatment and water resources has many stakeholders involved – engineers,
scientists, environmentalists, politicians, industries and communities.
“The launch of the global water center is a prime example of what public-private partnerships are all about,” Amhous said.
In 2013, Mayor Tom Barrett released a new city strategy, ReFresh Milwaukee. It is a 10-year plan to develop a sustainable community and push economic and ecological redevelopment in Milwaukee’s harbor areas.
“Programs like Milwaukee’s Global Water Center respect this multi-faceted issue while trying to foster new ways of thinking,” Yen said. “This country’s infrastructure is failing, and costing many governments precious money. It is clear that we cannot fix these problems with the same mode of thinking that we used to build and maintain them – it is simply too expensive.”
The students are looking towards Wisconsin as an opportunity for change.
“I’m going to try to stay with the school for a while longer after I graduate because I feel like we’re doing something important,” Olson said. “The school has a chance to be the rallying point for the restoration of Milwaukee’s harbor and the Walker’s Point neighborhood…the school has an important role in educating the Milwaukee public in an area (freshwater) that will become the economic focal point for the city in the near future.”
The push for collaboration across the private sector, academia, and policymakers leads to Milwaukee’s first steps into transforming into a global water hub. Milwaukee aspires to a national model to refresh cities, and an international model for water innovations.