By Tom Still

MADISON – A generation ago, then-Gov. Lee Dreyfus predicted clean water would become a global commodity – and even suggested Wisconsin could become the “blue-eyed Arabs” of the world’s emerging scramble for fresh water.

While it’s a far cry from an aqueous OPEC, Wisconsin’s assets as a basin of clean water and the technology to manage it are gaining national and even international attention. The potential for state economic growth is enormous – provided that regional water resources and expertise are promoted in a way that reflects well on all of Wisconsin. Two current events help to frame the opportunity and the challenge.

This week in Madison and the Fox Valley, a group of Chinese government researchers, academics and environmentalists are touring labs, meeting with fellow scientists, learning from industry examples and generally soaking up knowledge that may help them deal with China’s serious water-quality problems. That exchange was arranged primarily through New North, an economic development consortium of 18 counties in northeast Wisconsin, with key assistance from the UW-Madison, Lawrence University and Fox Valley Technical College.

In addition to meetings with scientists and others at UW-Madison, the Chinese delegation is spending time at Lawrence University’s water lab in Door County, at an Appleton paper company, and with others who can tell the story of the Fox River’s slow comeback from decades of pollution. That story is of vital interest to many in the Chinese delegation, which includes leaders in the fight to clean that nation’s rivers.       

Last week in Milwaukee, a conference designed to position southeast Wisconsin as a center for water technology focused on that region’s considerable assets – which include scores of established companies, a strong cluster of water scientists and UW-Milwaukee’s Great Lakes WATER Institute, the largest freshwater science program in the nation. As a paper by UW-Milwaukee economics professor Sammis White detailed, the seven-county Milwaukee region has about 120 businesses with an interest in water. In fact, five of the world’s largest 11 water-related companies have a presence there.

A few weeks before the Milwaukee summit, hosted by the Milwaukee 7 regional group, General Electric Co. and Pentair announced a joint venture of their residential water-treatment businesses. Those businesses will be based in Milwaukee and will target markets in India and China, as well as western nations.

Other parts of Wisconsin have considerable assets involving water, as well. One prominent example is the U.S. Geological Survey’s Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse, which works with academics, private industry and other government agencies on water-related issues. In March, a team of scientists from the center was recognized for their part in developing the first waterborne drug for fish diseases to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in more than 20 years. Other private and public groups such as the state Department of Natural Resources have focused on management of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, the Wisconsin River and other major waterways in Wisconsin. The state is also among five states that have ratified the Great Lakes Water Compact, which would require ratification by Congress.

In short, Wisconsin has almost as many water-related companies, researchers and technology transfer channels as it has lakes. It’s a virtual community that can be pulled together as “The Wisconsin Water Way,” a title that suggests the state’s historic expertise as well as its abundant surface and groundwater resources. “The Wisconsin Water Way” could become a differentiating brand as other states, regions and nations come to grips with the growing need for fresh water.

Just as water flows past political boundaries, its ability to generate economic growth must extend beyond regional economic interests, as well.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.