By Tom Still

MILWAUKEE – Rich Meeusen, the energetic CEO of Badger Meter and a driving force behind Milwaukee’s efforts to become a global hub of water technology businesses, expected to be outnumbered at last week’s public hearing on a proposed lakefront site for UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

“That’s OK,” Meeusen joked earlier in the day at a meeting of the Milwaukee 7 Water Council. “I’m accustomed to lousy odds.”

Indeed, Meeusen was outnumbered a few hours later when the city Board of Harbor Commissioners held a public hearing on building the school on a small site flanked by the Milwaukee Art Museum and Pier Wisconsin, two of the city’s most identifiable lakefront landmarks. More than two-thirds of those who spoke urged the board to preserve the land, site of the former “Pieces of Eight” restaurant, as green space or public lake access.

Now, there’s a tough choice: Build an indigenous portal to Milwaukee’s water research cluster on a shoreline that has rebranded the city, or set aside 1.67 acres so people have another place to drop their jet skis in the lake?

Milwaukee has a chance to become a watery Silicon Valley with its plans to market the region’s collective water technology assets, but the global marketplace won’t wait while the city’s preservationists try to block redevelopment of an old restaurant. Building a research showcase on the lakefront – backed by more extensive facilities elsewhere – is an opportunity that Milwaukee shouldn’t miss.

Milwaukee entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Cudahy has even negotiated a proposal to acquire the leasehold interest in the land, which means the UW-Milwaukee would get the site for free for decades to come. In other words, a group of people with no financial stake in the deal are telling Cudahy he’s all wet in thinking the site is an ideal spot for the School of Freshwater Sciences.

Ah, but that’s Milwaukee – a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, stuffed inside an enigmatic beer can. It’s a city that sometimes has trouble rallying around its own good ideas.

Developing the water cluster idea is a natural for Milwaukee, as demonstrated by the May 28 forum sponsored by the M-7 Water Council. The region has the right mix of academic research and development capacity and industrial know-how, spread among more than 100 companies that cover a variety of water technologies.

About 100 people at the M-7 meeting heard from representatives of Badger Meter, Veolia North America, A.O. Smith, Advanced Chemical Systems, CH2M Hill 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.

For example, Badger Meter is working on flow measurement technologies that can reduce waste, especially in municipal water systems. Veolia is working on surface water quality, watershed protection, emerging contaminants, desalination and algal toxins. Kohler wants to develop fixtures that use less water without diminishing the quality of the human experience. A.O. Smith is focused on new and better ways to heat and treat water. Advanced Chemical Systems sees water reuse technologies as holding enormous potential, and CH2M is looking at the emerging problem of discarded pharmaceuticals and other chemicals in the water.

Until people begin to value water as they do other commodities, the true surge in water technology research may not materialize. But that’s a challenge facing all potential water research clusters, from Singapore to Australia to Milwaukee to France. The immediate challenge facing Milwaukee is for more business and civic leaders to seize the city’s distinct innovation advantage, even if that means dunking a few lakeside preservationists.

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