A steady flow of Wisconsin innovation may help ease water woes

In the closing round of the 2022 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, all three finalists in the “advanced manufacturing” category offered ideas for dealing with threats to water supply.

During the recent “Research in the Rotunda” exhibit in the State Capitol by undergraduate students and faculty advisors in the UW System, 16 of 89 posters dealt with challenges to water and aquatic life.

Some of Wisconsin’s largest companies have put water at the core of their sustainability strategy, and groups such as the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership are offering water stewardship training programs to help all sizes of businesses better manage water use.

Those are just three examples of how innovation tied to water — one of Wisconsin’s most vital resources for reasons ranging from farming to tourism to manufacturing — offers hope in coming years as pressures mount on the supply and quality of fresh water in Wisconsin and beyond.

The stories of such pressures have become commonplace, almost numbingly so.

Water supplies in the American West are at record or near-record lows, with extended drought and other factors lowering reservoirs such as Shasta Lake, Lake Mead, and Lake Powell.

In Florida, which has the world’s densest concentration of freshwater springs, a combination of poorly placed development, over-pumping, pollution, and the effects of climate change significantly reduced water flow from many springs. Some of have stopped flowing altogether.

Closer to home, fishery experts in Wisconsin are worried that warming streams and lakes will make it much harder for trout and walleye to reach maturity, no matter how well those bodies of water are replenished with fingerlings and fry.

“Likely 99% of the U.S. population doesn’t give much thought about how they get their water or where their wastewater goes, but there are endless amounts of technologies required to clean and treat water and to make it safe and abundant for people and business,” said Dean Amhaus, president and chief executive officer of The Water Council, a Milwaukee-based umbrella group that works with industry and academia alike.

“Sadly, we as a nation commit a paltry amount to water technology solutions compared with the research investment of other countries or what we commit to energy innovations. If we want meaningful change, we need to get serious about placing greater value on water innovations and we have to do it immediately,” Amhaus added.

Wisconsin has something of a head start. Water research takes place at most of the state’s major campuses, including UW–Madison, UW–Milwaukee, and Marquette University. As demonstrated by the “Research in the Rotunda” event, research into water challenges is found at other UW System campuses as well. For example, UW–Superior has expertise in maritime science and freshwater estuaries.

It will likely take private-sector investment to spur faster adoption of water tech, however.

Three examples of innovation at the June 1–2 Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, where the business plan contest culminated, exhibited the statewide reach of water research and development.

  • Rapid Radicals Technology, based in Milwaukee, presented its plan to eliminate sewer overflows and basement backups by expanding existing municipal infrastructure to include decentralized, high-rate wastewater treatment technology. This plan emerged as the grand prize winner.
  • Madison-based ChloBis Water pitched its energy-efficient process to remove salt from water and convert it into valuable chemicals (such as caustic soda or bleach) while creating a sustainable resource recovery cycle.
  • La Crosse-based CompRex competed with its plan to develop a water and wastewater treatment system for removal of PFAS, which are chemicals commonly found in consumer and manufacturing products.

Water is still cheap in most places, and the speed at which innovation is embraced is slow. To guarantee the future of fresh water as a resource, it’s time to treat water as a commodity that can run out — and will run out — if taken for granted.

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