By Brian E. Clark
Two of the main requirements for manufacturing – one of Wisconsin’s traditional strengths – are energy and water.
Though the state produces little of its own power, it has abundant water resources that can be both exploited and protected in coming years.
“Some people talk of water as being the oil of the 21st century,” said Michael Switzenbaum, a Marquette University professor who headed a conference on water held Thursday at Pier Wisconsin on Lake Michigan.
“We’re in the fortunate position of having a lot of it,” added Switzenbaum, who chairs the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Marquette.
He said more than more than 120 business, academic and government leaders from around the region attended the conference, formally dubbed “Stewardship of Fresh Water in Southeastern Wisconsin.”
Carlos Santiago, chancellor of UW-Milwaukee, delivered the keynote address on economic development during the afternoon session. The morning section of the conference dealt mostly with protecting and maintaining water supplies.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett attended the meeting, as did former Gov. Tony Earl and other movers and shakers, including Michael Cudahy of the Endeavors Group.
“We have a tremendous water resource here with some 20 percent of the world’s fresh water in the Great Lakes,” Switzenbaum said. “More people should be aware of that because water is being very expensive.
“We already have a number of companies that rely on water, but the question is, ‘can we leverage this to be even more of an economic driver while we protect it at the same time?'” he said.
“I think we can,” he added. “But we are going to need political help to do it. This is all one region and we are very much connected. That will be a real challenge.”
Switzenbaum said he also believed southeast Wisconsin should do more to promote tourism.
“I’m from Baltimore and I’m standing here looking at Milwaukee skyline and out over Lake Michigan and this is as nice a city as I’ve ever seen. Certainly tourism should be a bigger part of the picture,” he said.
Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said he believes the Sunbelt states will one day see limited growth because of lack of water.
“Our region has abundant water and that should be a major factor in attracting and retaining jobs and people,” he said. “The Sunbelt explosion at some point is likely to top out because of lack of water.
“There needs to be – and is emerging – a fresh water strategy among the Great Lakes states. That’s a big part of why we are here.”
Water will define both economic growth and the quality of life in the 21st Century, Still said.
“This isn’t a particularly new idea, because we were talking about it 25 years ago,” he said.
“Now, though, I think it is an idea whose time has come,” he added. “It’s more true today than ever.”