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Look to the lake: Milwaukee’s economy depends on freshwater technology

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- The name Milwaukee comes from a native American phrase meaning "good land" but it's the good water all around us that may keep us economically afloat in years to come. That water's been a huge part of our past, and several civic leaders say Milwaukee's future could be even more dependent on lake Michigan.

Milwaukee's old "rust belt" mainstays like breweries, tanneries and meatpacking plants have largely packed up and left -- and now, the city is hoping water will be the key to designing an economy for Milwaukee's future.

In the shadow of the old Pabst Brewery, Harold Frazier does some "canning" -- collecting trash to turn in for cash. He gets $1 a pound for cans and water bottles, mostly. It is a way to supplement his temp jobs and pay his rent.

The 56-year-old Army veteran was injured in the first Gulf War, and he suffered another blow when the factor he worked at moved out-of-town.

"I was making good money and they went out of business, moved overseas. All these big factories, they going overseas where they can get people to work for nothing. That's what it's all about now. I'm canning because it's rough out here, there's no jobs. It's hard. The only thing out here is temp service," Frazier said.

Plant closings have left parts of the Milwaukee economy battered, a concern for everyone from the streets to the office of Rich Meeusen, chairman of century-old water meter maker Badger Meter.

"I used to say that Milwaukee's major export was corporate headquarters.  Just in the last few years, we lost Midwest Airlines, we lost Grede Foundries, -- a lot of corporate headquarters have moved out-of-town.  Miller left -- pulled it's corporate headquarters out.  So we've lost a lot of those. That has hurt our community," Meeusen said.

If the community and the economy is standing on the edge, it may only need to look at the lake for an answer: water -- 20% of the world's fresh water.

"It was one of those things that was staring us in the face, and we just didn't think about it that way," Meeusen said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Meeusen have big plans to make the city of Milwaukee a global hub for water technology and research.

"We're going to turn Milwaukee into the Silicon valley of water technology," Meeusen said.

As it turns out, today, there are about 150 companies in the Milwaukee area making fixtures and filters, pumps and valves, meters and heaters. Five of the 10 largest water companies are either headquartered or have major operations in southeastern Wisconsin.

"If you went to the bathroom today, it was probably water that was heated by A.O. Smith. It was metered by Badger Meter. You we're using a Kohler bathroom fixture with a Zurn Valve from Rexnord, or a Sloan Valve, and all of those companies are right in this region, so we have a good concentration," Meeusen said.

To bring them all together, Meeusen founded the Milwaukee Water Council and launched an annual water summit that brings the best minds and manufacturers in the world together to discuss the environmental, industrial, economic and civic issues of water.

"We are truly the freshwater capital of the world, and we might as well shout it from the rooftops," Mayor Barrett said.

The approach is paying off. The federal government has given the Water Council and its partners $4 million in grants for job creation and water research. Marquette University added a water law program. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater added a minor in water studies. Last year, with $50 million in state funding, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee opened the country's first-ever school of freshwater studies.

David Garman is the school's dean.

"I saw a comment the other day that said, 'surely all the research on water was done 100 years ago.' A lot of work was done 100 years ago, but the tools we have now really mean that we can start looking in quite a different way," Garman said.

Inside the lakefront labs at UWM, scientists are figuring out new ways to monitor the lake and understand its complicated ecosystem. But what is going on outside the lab is just as important. In the middle of December, FOX6 News went out on the 58-year-old research vessel, "The Neeskay."

Professor Val Klump is the associate dean for research at the freshwater sciences school. He spends his time taking samples and measurements of Lake Michigan.

"We have developed an expertise here for obvious reasons -- this system is priceless.  Understanding what's going on is important, but what we study has applications to freshwater systems everywhere," Klump said.

His mission is to understand how the Great Lakes System works and to preserve the precious water as a resource for future generations.

"They always say, water is the new oil.  Well, there are substitutes for oil.  There is no substitute for water," Klump said.

Dealing with the freshwater scarcity is a worldwide concern and Milwaukee's approach earned it the title of a United Nations "global compact city." Representatives from around the globe and across America have visited in the past year to try to understand how Milwaukee has successfully embraced the water hub idea so quickly.

"I believe the world's water problems could be solved right here in Milwaukee," Meeusen said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is an enthusiastic partner. Mayor Barrett is planning to turn the Reed Street Yards -- a rail yard in the Fifth Ward into an accelerator for water-related companies. The facility is under construction on Pittsburgh Street -- which will be renamed "Freshwater Way."

"The city will be creating an infrastructure here with roads and sewers. There's going to be a riverwalk, so it's going to allow us to breathe life into this area that has been ignored for many years," Mayor Barrett said.

More than three-quarters of the building has already been reserved, including a space for UWM's freshwater sciences school. Mayor Barrett and other city officials hope the project can create thousands of jobs with the $500 billion industry potentially replacing the city's lost manufacturing jobs.

"I think there are a lot of opportunities to revitalize Milwaukee and to turn this region around, but I think water is one of the plays and probably one of the strongest plays," Meeusen said.

The reason may lie far beyond the lake, somewhere int he heart of this Midwestern city -- a place that prizes friendliness and the ability to work together.

"Why Milwaukee? Why the new model?  It's because of this working together, to make things happen," Garman said.

This is just what Frazier wants to hear, and he hopes maybe one day instead of collecting water bottles, the water itself will help him collect a paycheck -- much like freshwater holds the key to washing away the city's "rust belt" reputation.

Milwaukee's water model is getting a wave of recognition. Veolia Water, the world's biggest water technology company recently chose Milwaukee as one of six cities to help develop a set of universal water practices for an age of scarcity, and IBM awarded Milwaukee a "smarter cities" grant to fund water technology initiatives.

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