The New (Water) Economy

Two very different ways of harnessing water to power economic growth gained strength last week in the Great Lakes region - one through a Michigan Supreme Court decision, the other through the refreshing art of entrepreneurship in Wisconsin.

Both ventures see spectacular global market potential. But one approach is fresh and dynamic. The other is tired and played out.

One approach promises to vitalize and transform the regional business model for the knowledge economy. The other maintains a modern day toe hold for the ancient economic development principles of the 19th century.

One approach is about taking risk, making bold decisions, actively shaping a new destiny, and innovating the jobs and companies of the future. The other is about closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and hoping - just hoping - that the good 'ole days will return.

Put simply, one approach is about tomorrow. The other is about yesterday. Which is which? You decide.

Nestle Waters won the right to continue mining, bottling, and selling Michigan's clean fresh ground water when the state Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, July 25, 2007, that citizens lack the standing to raise basic questions about how the multinational corporation's pumping might affect nearby lakes, streams, and wetlands.

The decision, and the company's ongoing expansion in the Great Lakes State, stregthens the frontier mindset that Michigan's water resources are inexhaustible. This attitude about abundant natural resources led the state’s residents and leaders to promote rampant clearcutting in the Lumber Baron era, which left entire ecosystems and the human communities that came to depend on them in shambles. It also fueled the careless killing that decimated the passenger pigeon and led to the extinction of native game fish such as the grayling. The recipe for these disasters - insatiable demand and careless exploitation - was the same then as the current trend in global water markets.

Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth. According to the United Nations, more than one billion people already lack an adequate supply of fresh drinking water. And an estimated three billion people will be living in water-stressed countries in 2035, according to research by the World Bank.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin - which kicked Nestle out several years ago - is now taking a dramatically different approach to confront the situation. Business leaders in Milwaukee recently held a conference to call attention to the growing global market for new technologies that cleanup, conserve, and sustain increasingly scarce fresh water supplies. Their overarching goal is to leverage new policies, research efforts, and venture capitol to grow water-based businesses and help the state economy accelerate its transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age.

"There are companies that haven't started yet, and we don't even know them yet, but they will be successful," said Paul Jones, CEO of A.O Smith, which manufacturers water heaters. "They have to start somewhere. Why not here?"

The greater Great Lakes region can certainly support a vibrant water bottling industry under the appropriate rules and regulation. But the recent activity in Wisconsin confirms there's a spectrum of water-related businesses coming online in the 21st century, from the water miners to the water savers. The challenge for Great Lakes society is to determine which industries are sustainable and add the most value to a modern day development strategy. The next move is to align the related state policies and economic development incentives accordingly.