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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

What's Needed to Move Forward With Water Hub


Our series Project Milwaukee: The Currency of Water continues this morning. We’re reporting on Milwaukee’s efforts to become a global hub for water research and technology. In the past few years, companies already in the water business here have been expanding. But as WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson reports, leaders are now working to kick the effort into high gear. The ultimate prize would be jobs and economic development, along with a good dose of prestige.

Several key components are needed in order to make Milwaukee a world leader in water research and technology, and some are already underway. One is organization. The Milwaukee 7 Water Council formed in 2007 to spearhead the region’s effort to become a global hub. Another crucial item, according to spokesman Claus Dunkelberg, is money.

“What got Singapore and others really up and running is funding, whether it’s from the state government, local government or from the federal side of the equation,” Dunkelberg says.

Dunkelberg says this region’s initiative got a shot in the arm this fall when the federal government awarded the council nearly $250,000 to study what water needs exist and what products might be in demand.

Also this year, Gov. Jim Doyle put money in the state budget to develop a new School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee. The school is scheduled to open next fall and will house graduate programs for students pursuing research or teaching careers in the water industry. Dunkelberg says local technical colleges are also lending a hand.

“They have changed their curriculum or added to their curriculum a water strain that provides individuals with a two year degree that will allow them to get into the water market. These are the folks that operate the treatment plants. The technician level is huge in the water industry and that’s not going to go away,” Dunkelberg says.

One technician already working in the industry is Bob Heideman. He’s Vice President of Corporate Technology at A. O. Smith, headquartered on Milwaukee’s northwest side. The company incorporated here in 1904 and is now one of the world’s largest manufacturers of water heating and cooling equipment.

“We’ll look at water performance in here, coding performance, combustion performance,” Heideman says.

Heideman is giving me a tour of the firm’s research and development facility, showing off some products that will be rolled out early next year. They include a state of the art solar panel.

“You have the black plate on it. The black plate, the sun goes through, heats it up. That heat is transferred to the copper coil. The copper coil has a fluid in it, that fluid gets heated...” Heideman says.

Al Lesak works on a motor design at A. O. Smith.

In the end, the solar panel heats the water in the tank. Heideman is one of 16,000 employees worldwide for A. O. Smith. Chief Executive Officer Paul Jones has taken a keen interest in Milwaukee’s effort to become a water hub. Jones says A. O. Smith recently hired several water technologists. He hopes others flock to the area as they hear what’s in the making.

“I think it will be a lot of small startup companies that will then start growing. I would love to see a major water-related technology company move to town. It’s going to be difficult to do,” Jones says.

Jones, who’s also co-chair of the Milwaukee 7 Water Council, says the region could face difficulties in luring companies, because of Wisconsin’s reputation of having high business taxes.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is pushing several ideas to ease the tax burden for water companies that move here. One is creating tax incremental financing, or a TIF district for those businesses.

“We’ve come up with a concept that is in essence a water TIF. To use an example, if a company came in and agreed to create at least 25 jobs for a five year period, we would give them a reduced water rate,” Barrett says.

Barrett says in addition, the city is eyeing an area south of the Menomonee Valley to build a research park strictly for water-related businesses. He’d like to attract companies from the south, where communities are experiencing a severe shortage of water.

Some environmentalists are warning against a big rush however. Kae DonLevy, of the group River Pulse, says mass construction and relocation here could end up polluting the water.

“We need to look very closely at bringing more industry and make sure that whatever we do, we do it sustainably with green infrastructure, you know the more development you have the more surfaces that allow runoff,” DonLevy says.

DonLevy has been meeting regularly with the Milwaukee 7 Water Council to make sure the area’s effort to become a hub is safe for the environment. She says existing industries have been doing a good job of building rain gardens and taking other steps to protect the region’s valued sources of water.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.