In a digital world, a chain-link fence and a padlock won’t secure your water system. That security of water — from environmental to diplomatic to cyber — was the focus of the 10th Water Leaders Summit hosted by The Water Council May 23-24 in Milwaukee.

More than 200 corporate CEOs, engineers, technology start-ups and academic leaders gathered to hear the perspectives of those intimately involved in keeping water safe and plentiful. Both Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker were among the dignitaries who spoke on the importance of water. 

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Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett addressed more than 200 attendees at the 2017 Water Leaders Summit. —Photo By Sharon Verbeten


“You can’t fix water problems without a sense of community,” said moderator Charles Fishman, Fast Company contributor and author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. That sense of community was reflected in the summit’s panelists, who spoke about their individual experiences.

“We have made dramatic progress in the past 10 years,” said Fishman. “The attitude, the awareness, the determination to change the way their city or their company relates to water has changed dramatically. We don’t need visionaries — we need practitioners.

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Dr. Uri Shani is one of those practitioners who has experienced the questions “what happens when water causes conflict?” and “can it be used to bring people together?” Shani, head of Israel’s water authority, spoke to the diplomatic importance with a bold statement. “Anywhere there is an active water agreement, there is no war.”

Shani spoke of leveraging water and desalination deals — which took years to accomplish — among the troubled Middle East desert nations of Israel and Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

In an example closer to home of using lawyers instead of guns to address water issues, attorney Stephen O’Day of Smith, Gambrell & Russell in Atlanta talked about the decades-long water conflict among Georgia, Alabama and Florida. With the Army Corps of Engineers controlling the flow of Apalachicola River, those in the busy populated metropolitan areas looked to Lake Lanier, a reservoir in the northern portion of Georgia, to get water.

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But what impact would that have on the residents downstream? According to O’Day, the states sued the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980s to get the water, and issues continue to this day.

Changes in water policy don’t come quickly, as O’Day attested to. And Shani’s negotiations took years as well. Rich Meeusen, CEO of Badger Meter, said that’s how things work in the massive water industry sometimes. “These technologies, in the industry we’re in, take time.”

Lisa Wojnarowski Downes of The Nature Conservancy said her organization has a long history of protecting source water and is currently working on forest preservation and agricultural best practices. She said success comes from various entities all doing their own parts — entities like businesses, consumers and the agricultural industry. “We don’t need everyone to do everything,” she said.

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She said she’s optimistic about the how the public values water, as evidenced by the recent water scares in Flint, Mich., and Toledo, Ohio. “What’s it going to take for us as a country to focus on more proactive ways to protect drinking water? We shouldn’t wait for significant federal investment.”

Co-panelist Kathleen Ferris of Arizona State University agreed, emphasizing the importance of good leadership in government. “I’m furious about the fact that we are not funding the infrastructure. It has to be governmental leadership at the state and national level. We absolutely have to have a movement in this country to address water.” That comment drew the biggest applause of the panel.

“It’s really going to take a collective energy,” she added.

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Innovation showcase

Two water start-ups are helping provide that insight and energy. An innovation showcase spotlighted two companies, including one based in Wisconsin.

The two-year-old Roving Blue of Lena, Wisconsin, conducted much of its testing with the U.S. military. It manufactures and distributes advanced water purification products that harness the power of ozone.

Officially launched this year, the company is marketing an O-Pen — a handheld pen that uses ozone to purify water, which is handy for use on cruise ships and in foreign countries, hotels and other venues where water quality is suspect.

The other start-up, Ambience Data of Ontario, has developed a platform to connect with sensors to test water quality in real time. By providing this, sensor equipment manufacturers can incorporate the Ambience hardware into their product line.

The importance of organizational security

Turning water from a risk to an asset was the focus of one of the event’s panels. Andy Hobbs, global director of the Environmental Quality Office for Ford Motor Company, said good business decisions and good environmental decisions are not mutually exclusive.

He spoke of how Ford Motor Company knew everything down to the second and down to the penny of the processes in making a car. But in 2000, Hobbs admitted they didn’t know anything about water use in many of their plants.

They started initiatives to help them learn more, and one thing they learned was that in 2000, the production of each car required about 2,235 gallons of water. Focusing on water savings, the company then established objectives. They knew how much their water was costing, but didn’t know exactly where the water was going.

Once Ford started to understand where the water went, they discovered huge water leaks. Nine percent of the company’s water use worldwide was being leaked underground.

They also learned that since the paint shop used the most water, Ford could seek ways to tighten that consumption. Hobbs said they ended up changing their process and requesting reformulated paint — all of which saved water. In the first 10 years, Ford reduced water consumption by 40 percent, later reducing it by 61 percent, according to Hobbs.

Where Ford measured water process by process, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill measured building by building. Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises, spoke of how the university put in a reclaimed water system to help irrigate the campus and install digital water meters to determine the quantity and location of water use.

Even amid the campus growing by about 60 percent, Ives said it was able to reduce usage of potable water by 60 percent and reduce overall water usage by 10 percent.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we want to go further,” he said. “We’ll have to continue to innovate if we’re going to continue to grow.”

Water Warrior of the Year

The Water Council also presented its first Water Warrior of the Year Award. This debut award was created to recognize a water leader who has made “significant achievements in the water industry and gone above and beyond in supporting STEM education.”

The winner is Dennis Webb, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate, retired engineer and vice president from Badger Meter. He now has an office in the Global Water Center for his new company Sage Water, which offers consulting to start-up businesses. He also works with water technology students from his alma mater. Meeusen said he’s “tireless in his support of people and tireless in his support of water.”

Wisconsin’s relationship with water

While the Water Leaders Summit brought together attendees from other states and nations, it’s no coincidence that The Water Council and the Global Water Center are located in Milwaukee.

A 2013 Forbes magazine article called Milwaukee “the capital of water.” And according to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, more than 200 companies have ties to the state’s burgeoning water technology industry. These companies employ nearly 37,000 people and generate $5.7 million in annual sales.

Water is a big deal in the city and the state. Milwaukee received its third U.S. water prize in 2013, going to MillerCoors, for its comprehensive water management practices. Previous winners included Milwaukee Water Council and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District.

Forty-eight water technology companies, with annual revenues of $10 million or more, have headquarters in Wisconsin, including major players such as Badger Meter, A.O. Smith, Rexnord, Johnson Controls, Kohler Co. and Rockwell Automation.

Education also is key. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s school of freshwater sciences is the only graduate-level program of its kind. Other Wisconsin schools also offer water-related courses, including Marquette University, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Milwaukee Area Technical College, Moraine Park Technical College, Gateway Technical College and Waukesha County Technical College.


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