Taking One’s Own Advice

Last week I had the opportunity to join a number of my Johnson Foundation colleagues for the annual dinner of the Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce (RAMAC). Racine is home to a number of manufacturers – RUUD Lighting, Emerson (parent company of Insinkerator), and Case Manufacturing, to name a few, as well as SC Johnson and Diversey, the two companies that generously provide the bulk of our foundation’s budget.

I was particularly interested in attending the dinner this year to hear the evening’s speaker, Mr. Rich Meeusen, Chairman and CEO of Badger Meter, a Milwaukee manufacturer of water meters. Meeusen has become a household name in southeastern Wisconsin in large part because of his leadership in creating the Milwaukee Water Council, a coalition of 100+ businesses (including many in Racine) specializing in water technology. I was curious to see what Rich would have to say to this gathering of a few hundred local business representatives.

Early in my time at Wingspread, Rich had come down to talk with me to see if we’d consider hosting a meeting on one of the region’s most controversial issues. Wisconsin and the other Great Lakes states and provinces had recently approved the Great Lakes Compact, a landmark bi-national agreement to protect the Great Lakes from being exported to thirsty regions beyond the watershed. Some of the protectionist sentiment was based on concern that rapidly growing population centers in arid areas would find a way to buy up the Great Lakes and ship them out in a big pipeline west. Very real proposals were being bantered about, and one contract to ship water out by the container load had already been approved.

But the most controversial proposal was (and continues to be) to build a pipeline from Lake Michigan to the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Waukesha is only twenty miles from Lake Michigan, but it sits on the Fox River, tributary to the Mississippi River, and is decidely not in the Great Lakes Watershed. But the concerns were not just technical. They were political and social. Milwaukee and the other cities that sit on Lake Michigan’s shores have taken a few hits in recent decades. Theirs is the typical urban story – loss of jobs, white flight, reductions in tax base, high unemployment, poverty, school drop out … and so the story goes.

Meanwhile, Waukesha, has been growing like gangbusters in recent decades, largely through suburban annexations, large homes, large lots, etc. They’ve grown so much that they have drawn down their groundwater supplies to the point where some of the deep water they now pump is tainted with radium. Not good. The irony is that Waukesha was originally a spa town, known for its clean, healing spring waters. In fact, during the Chicago World’s Fair in the late 1800’s, Waukesha’s citizens defended their springs at gunpoint from those who wanted to siphon the water for Fair attendees. But, like so many places, Waukesha grew beyond its water supply and now needs to look for new solutions. The solution that Waukesha’s water department is betting on is the old fashioned one – pipe it in from Lake Michigan.

So, back to Rich Meeusen. Part of the goal for creating the Milwaukee Water Council has been to spur business, but it’s also to put the region on the map as the world’s leader in water smarts. Listening to Rich on the evening of April 24th, the audience was looking to him as the embodiment of those water smarts. Just for the record, I am one of those people who thinks Rich is a very smart man. But I’m not ready to concede all points to him.

One of the key messages of his speech was that “we’re running out of water.” Though I would personally state it a little differently, I’ll give him that point. But then he added “But the problem is that everyone is running around worrying about global warming.” A smart businessman like Rich needs to realize that climate change and water are inextricably tied together. It’s not a matter of which is more important – they come as a package. And there are business opportunities to be had for those who recognize it.

But the point I really want to push back on was on Rich’s vision for how the region can work together to ensure both water and a strong economy for all. I was right with him when he started to pound on Las Vegas. “Give them more (water), and they will expand until they need more (water) …. Moving water isn’t the way to solve water problems.” Yes! I couldn’t agree more. He continued, “A major part of the solution is to stop moving water to the people, and start moving people to the water.” Again, I agree though I think he missed an opportunity to promote the role of regional smarts and technological innovations that can help Las Vegas and the rest of us conserve, filter, and re-use our water.

But then he did an about face. The solution for Waukesha, he told the audience, was to move water from Lake Michigan out to where their people are. And since the proposals are for moving much more water than Waukesha currently uses, many in the region are understandably concerned it will be used to spur suburban growth at the expense of lakefront cities.

Rich, help me understand why moving water is the smart decision for Waukesha? How does using a 19th Century technology of pipes and pumps help southeastern Wisconsin showcase its leading edge water smarts? What are the long-term cost implications for the people of Waukesha (and those who loan them the money) who will be saddled with this debt for generations to come, especially given national trends toward declining per capita water use and escalating energy costs?

We need smart people like Rich Meeusen and the other leaders of the Milwaukee Water Council to help the region apply the best thinking, and the best technologies, we have to help ensure that the people of Wisconsin and beyond have the water that need. But let’s go back to the drawing board before assuming that a pipeline is the best we can do.

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