Wisconsin water tech leaders in China for ‘sponge cities’ conferences

Wisconsin water tech leaders are in China this week for two conferences focusing on ‘sponge cities,’ an effort started in 2015 to capture and use runoff water in the country’s large, highly developed urban areas.

According to Katy Sinnott, vice president of International Business Development at WEDC, China plans to capture 75 percent of all runoff by 2025, and 80 percent by 2030.

“This is a really aggressive program,” she said yesterday on a conference call with reporters. “Wisconsin is well-positioned to help China successfully address these water challenges.”

The country has set aside about $12.5 billion in U.S. dollars to “move this sponge city effort along” in 30 cities, according to Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of the Water Council, a water tech hub located in Milwaukee.

“What happens in China is you have these torrential rainstorms — vast amounts of water, huge amounts of damage… then it runs off, and then they have a drought,” Amhaus said. “Through management practices, it’s possible to capture and use that water. It sounds simple and easy, but it’s much more complicated that that.”

This wasteful cycle occurs because of China’s “uncontrolled development” in the past few decades, according to Amhaus.

“They’ve been responding to development rather than planning for it,” he said. “They’ve got massive amounts of impervious cover, asphalt… that has caused more runoff to occur.”

The climate itself is also an issue, said Kevin Shafer, executive director for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. Almost all rainfall in Beijing, for example, happens in just two or three months of the year — and much of that monthly rainfall can come in just a few days, he said.

“That becomes a public health risk, and a detriment to economic development,” he added.

The first of two water conferences collectively titled “One Water, One World: The U.S.-China Conference on Water and Sponge Cities,” was held by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the Water Council on Monday in Nanjing. The second will be held Thursday in Beijing, with over 250 “key government officials” attending, according to Sinnott.

Also in attendance are construction companies involved in the sponge city effort and smaller associated tech companies.

As larger companies like AO Smith and Kohler already have a major presence in China, Amhaus says the Water Council wants to expand the market for those companies. The council also hopes to open up opportunities for smaller businesses that are taking new, innovative approaches to water treatment and related processes.

PaveDrain, a Milwaukee-based paving and filtration contractor, has already started to “dip their toe in the water in China,” according to Amhaus. And Sinnott added that early conversations in China have already led to potential sales for the Milwaukee-based water tech startup.

Amhaus also noted that there’s been considerable interest in the deep tunnel system used in Milwaukee to slow down the process of treating stormwater, buying much-needed time. And Shafer noted interest for green infrastructure and flood management programs.

Next week, MMSD will be signing an agreement to become a sister utility with Beijing’s Water Authority. Shafer says he and others will work to make sure this isn’t just a symbolic signing, focusing on “real action” being taken as a result of this partnership.

The conferences feature expert panel discussions on stormwater retention and water efficiency, as well as talks from representatives of Rockwell Automation, Rexnord, A. O. Smith and InSinkErator. Doug Buch, founder and president of PaveDrain, will also address attendees.

Next week, a 10-person delegation from the Beijing Water Authority will visit Milwaukee to tour the Global Water Center, MMSD’s Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility and other water tech sites. BWA Deputy Director General Pan Anjun will lead the delegation.

–By Alex Moe