By Tom Still 


MADISON – When first lady Michelle Obama dropped by the southern Wisconsin city of Watertown to urge Americans to drink more water, the original healthy alternative to sugary drinks, it seemed like a good gimmick. She “dropped” into Watertown… get it? 


The first lady’s visit was welcome, of course, but there’s a lot more happening under the surface of Wisconsin’s water technology economy than even the White House might know. 


Within a few hours of Mrs. Obama’s visit, Gov. Scott Walker, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and a host of business leaders dedicated a seven-story, $22 million water technology and business incubator just south of downtown Milwaukee. 


The idea behind the Global Water Center is to create a shared space for established water-engineering companies from the Milwaukee region, which will set up labs alongside university scientists, grad students and a new generation of startups. The UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Science is a major tenant in the 100,000-square-foot incubator, which attracted state and city support, as well as the backing of the Milwaukee Water Council. 


Many in Milwaukee are bullish on the region’s ability to penetrate global markets for technologies that test, treat, monitor, conserve and transport water. Its business and research communities have aggressively staked out the water technology space in recent years, and the strategy appears to be paying off with 25 companies – large and small – sharing space in the incubator so far. 


Major companies in the region include Badger Meter, Veolia North America, A.O. Smith, Advanced Chemical Systems, CH2M Hill, Siemens, Pentair and the Kohler Company. Each company works in a different sector – from metering to heating to purification to engineering to plumbing fixtures. But their collective R&D needs and investment areas illustrate why the region is among a relative handful of cities that are positioned to deal with the world’s growing shortages of clean water. 


Of course, water tech isn’t confined to the Milwaukee area. Water research programs exist at other academic institutions in Wisconsin, including the UW-Madison’s Sea Grant Institute and its Center for Limnology, as well as campuses in Stevens Point, Superior and Whitewater. 


Water technology companies are also emerging in Madison and the Fox Valley as well as Milwaukee. Some examples:  


–       AquaMost, which has developed technologies to treat water used in the hydraulic fracturing process used in mining for oil and natural gas. 

–       WellIntel, which uses a low-power, water-level sensor to collect highly accurate information about groundwater levels.  

–       BioIonix, which has deployed technology that disinfects and oxidizes contaminants in liquid streams. It has applications in the food industry, manufacturing and wastewater treatment. 

–       Microbe Detectives, which identifies and quantifies nearly all bacteria in microbial communities, including those that can thrive in water.  

–       H2O Score, which uses real-time electronic dashboards to connect consumers to their own water use habits and patterns. 


By the way: Wisconsin has plenty of competition. At the University of Minnesota, for example, the Minnesota Trade Office and the university are holding a Water Technology Export Roundtable this month to explore opportunities in the global marketplace. 


While people often take water for granted in Wisconsin, a state with ample surface and underground supplies of fresh water, that’s not the case in much of the world – or even the rest of the United States. 


More than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes. Lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equal to a jumbo jet crashing every four hours. One-fifth of the world’s population lacks access to clean water, and by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in areas where water is scarce. 


Technologies and processes developed in Wisconsin can help solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. Wisconsin not only has plenty of fresh water, but a combination of research, engineering and manufacturing skills tied to its safe and efficient use. Milwaukee’s Global Water Center promises not only to send ripples throughout the state economy, but the world.