The Great Lakes Provide Abundant Water. How Will This Shape the Economy of Midwestern Cities?

Here in the Great Lakes region, we are fortunate to enjoy one of Earth’s largest supplies of fresh water. During a century when water scarcity issues will likely have significant effects on states and societies around the world, entrepreneurs are speculating that water abundance here will benefit the region.

Lots of people make a strong case that the world is going to have to get a lot smarter about water, fast. A recent study in the journal Nature reports that eighty percent of the world’s population already experiences “high levels of threat to water security” measurements of rivers in the United States found half to be under stress. It’s already a front-burner issue for cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Supply is getting to be a real problem, and there’s a lot of demand, not just for drinking water. Large amounts of water go into manufacturing items as varied as computer chips and blue jeans. One pair of Levi’s alone requires 2,900 gallons of water. When supply goes down, price eventually goes up dramatically.

“So, water won’t be treated like air,” said David Zetland, a water economist who teaches in the Netherlands and recently published a book called The End of Abundance. “We’re going to treat it like gasoline.” [….]

Richard Meeusen thinks the key to dealing with the impending global water crisis will be technological innovation. Water technology will be to the next few decades what computer tech has been for the last thirty years: The driver of world-transforming innovation.

“About five years ago, I had this vision that Milwaukee could be the Silicon Valley of water tech,” Meeusen said.

Meeusen thinks Milwaukee is going to cash in and has been leading a charge to bring local water-tech companies together with scientists at local universities who study water, aiming to leverage those resources to attract more companies, more investors and more recognition to create a wet Silicon Valley.

Meeusen has built a lot of momentum over the last few years, with buy-in from dozens of local and national companies, a new initiative at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and about $4 million in federal grant support.

The truest-bluest believers are in Milwaukee’s city government. The city’s economic development director, Rocky Marcoux, took us to see a disused rail yard near the Harley-Davidson Museum that the city is promoting as a business incubator called the Reed Street Yards.

“We’re going to be marketing this land almost exclusively to water-related companies,” Marcoux said. Marcoux expects the Reed Street Yards and other water-related initiatives to produce what Milwaukee needs most: jobs. “It’s going to have thousands of jobs associated with it.”

Our consumption of water worldwide and in the Great Lakes region in particular were examined in Professor Mike Bryson’s seminar SUST 220 Water last fall, and these subjects are examined in this spring’s offerings of SUST 210 The Sustainable Future (offered both downtown and online). If you are interested in these or any of our other courses, find out more by visiting our Sustainability Studies website, calling 1-877-277-5978 (1-877-APPLY RU) or emailing

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