The Business of Water

Dec 8, 2009

Not too long ago, Milwaukee was thought of as a beer town. After all, the city was home to four large breweries, and they used plenty of water. So did other industries that took root here, such as tanneries. Milwaukee was perfect, sitting in around one-fifth of the world’s fresh water supply. All the related companies that developed are now prompting Milwaukee to forge ahead with a plan to become a global water hub. In this installment of our Project Milwaukee series, The Currency of Water, WUWM’s LaToya Dennis introduces us to some of the players. It’s a little after four on a weekday afternoon and second shifters at Badger Meter are busy.

“Every one of the water meters we make are tested.”

Rich Meeusen is dressed in his typical tie clip and cuff links, believing they’re the stilettos of men’s fashion. He’s president and CEO of Badger Meter.

“So this man here is running the tests on the water meters to determine that they are accurate. U.S. standards for water meters is that they have to be accurate plus or minus 1.5 percent,” Meeusen says.

Badger Meter is North America’s largest producer of meters that measure the amount of water households and businesses use.

“We have operations in Milwaukee, Tulsa, Nogales; Stuttgart, Germany and Brno, Czech Republic,” Meeusen says.

Around 500 people work at the company headquarters here in Brown Deer, just outside Milwaukee. Meeusen says his company pumps between $5 million and $7 million each year into research and development, most locally. He’s convinced that Milwaukee could one day become the Silicon Valley of water.

“I would like to think that someday, when a young entrepreneur says I have an idea for a water technology company, that person’s family says, ‘you should go to Milwaukee. There’s a trained workforce in water technology, there’s a government that’s friendly to water technology, there are venture capitalists who understand water technology, there’s the only school of Freshwater Sciences located right in Milwaukee,’” Meeusen says.

And, Meeusen says there’s a group called the Milwaukee 7 Water Council, comprised of 120 water-related businesses that can help others get started. Meeusen is co-chair of the council. He says five of the 11 largest water technology companies in the world have major operations in Milwaukee.

“Milwaukee has a greater concentration of water technology companies than any other place on Earth. Everything from water heaters, meters, fixtures, pumps are made here. What we don’t have is all those groups working very closely together,” Meeusen says.

Therein lies the problem, according to Tom Dougherty. There’s no cohesion yet. Dougherty is president of Advanced Chemical Systems. It sells waste water treatment systems to industrial companies. He says Milwaukee is slowly moving in the direction of becoming a water hub, but is not there yet.

“If the players, i.e. big business, politicians and academia get together, there’s no reason why we couldn’t be. There’s the talk of doing it, and the key there is how do you do it right,” Dougherty says.

Dougherty says while the business and academic leaders here are pushing the water industry movement, there have been setbacks. Take the delay in deciding where to locate UWM’s new School of Freshwater Sciences.

“You’re gonna have people who are for and against the UWM school on the lake off the lake. To me, let’s get it done. Let’s get it somewhere,” Dougherty says.

Still, Dougherty says he doesn’t know of any other city in the U.S. trying to accomplish what Milwaukee is. His company has begun working with the UW-Milwaukee Great Lakes Water Institute. Together, they’re trying to develop technology that will alert people right away when too many contaminants are flowing into the water system. Val Klump is director of the institute.

“Most of what we do here is sort of on the environmental side. One of the big issues now with respect to water treatment is what about these emerging contaminants like pharmaceuticals? Because conventional sewage treatment plants don’t do a particularly good job at removing pharmaceuticals from wastewater,” Klump says.

Klump says the conversations flowing around him about a global water hub here have him more excited than at anytime in his career: research and development would play a major role. Now Klump says money and political will are needed to push this thing further. Globally, water is reported to be a $425 billion dollar business, with growing demand for such things as drinking water and waste water treatment facilities. Advocates here hope Milwaukee can carve out a decent-size piece of that pie. They say already, about 20,000 people in the greater Milwaukee area are employed in water related industries.