Great Lakes X's and O's

When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson hinted last week that the Great Lakes region could help arid Western states meet the rising and insatiable demand for water, Wisconsin Senator Rob Cowles called on the people of his state to send "a big signal" to the Democratic long shot for President.

The question is whether the signal should be a defensive or an offensive play call? Because the people of the Great Lakes region have a choice. We can chose to pass protectionist policies that strive simply to lock up a globally unique water resource and ban massive diversions to far off states and foreign nations. And we can chose to advance a proactive policy that aims to spur innovation, create jobs, and boost competitiveness by becoming the quarterback of the booming global water tech business.

Put another way, we can export water (or, more likely, constantly fight water exports) or we can export new ideas and technologies to solve the global water crisis.

Gov. Richardson touched on that idea recently when he told the Las Vegas Sun that America needs a national water policy, and that the nation needs a dialogue between states about how to "deal with issues like water conservation, water reuse technology, water delivery, and water production."

The market potential for water tech is vast, with some estimates defining the global water business as a $300 billion industry. It's a smart play in a knowledge economy that increasingly demands new and improved ways to simultaneously sustain the economy and the ecology. And states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio have unique combination of innovative spirit, manufacturing know how, and freshwater expertise to dominate the market.

But the Governor, an accomplished diplomat, also remarked that "Wisconsin is awash in water," and fueled the century-old fear in the Great Lakes that Colorado, California, and others are plotting to build pipelines and pumps to siphon off the region's incredibly robust supplies.

Dan Egan, the veteran Great Lakes reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, jumped all over that aspect of Gov. Richardson's comments and interviewed experts across the region for a response.

"It's another scary reminder that we need to get going and pass a compact [that limits water withdrawals] - and a strong compact - so this kind of thing is off the table," said state Sen. Cowles, a Republican from Green Bay.

"We have protections in place, but it's very fragile," said state Rep. Jon Richards, a Democrat from Milwaukee.

But while the politicians talk treaties, pioneering business leaders are talking technology - and big profit.

John Torinus wasn't included in Egan's article. But the Wisconsin business leader personally took to the pages of the Milwaukee paper the following day with his own column drawing attention "to the emerging economic cluster based on freshwater technologies."

Torinus doesn't address Gov. Richardson's comments directly. But his thoughtful article illustrates the aqua rich Great Lakes can play offense or defense against the growing global demand for clean fresh water. And the truth is successful teams play well on both sides of the ball.