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The Ultimate Water Park

A new research and development industry could help world’s water supply, state’s economic development

May 2, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bradford Ryder

A Grand Rapids entrepreneur wants to transform the city’s long-abandoned filtration plant into a water technology research center.

A few years ago, Tom Newhof thought he had an innovative strategy to lure high-tech jobs to Michigan and provide the world with new ways to clean and conserve water. But today the environmental engineer wonders what it will take to fund cutting-edge water research in the Great Lakes and continue modernizing the state economy.

A worldwide market for new knowledge and expertise that improve water resource management clearly exists. The World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, an international association of Nobel laureates, policymakers, and scientists, reports that 1.4 billion people on the planet now live without clean drinking water. The commission also found that seven million people die each year from water-borne diseases.

The search for solutions is becoming big business in the United States and abroad. The market for water engineering services alone jumped 25 percent in 1999. And a growing number of entrepreneurs see major market growth for new services and products that increase access to clean fresh water.

With this in mind, Mr. Newhof’s plan to open a world-class water laboratory in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., seems like a promising, even exciting idea. The facility, which he has dubbed the Global Enterprise for Water Technology, would attract and incubate new-economy jobs by focusing on solutions to the incredibly complex problems now threatening the quality and quantity of the world’s freshwater supply. But, so far, state economic development experts see little value in the idea. Mr. Newhof, president of the consulting firm Prein and Newhoff, has campaigned for the project since 2000, but has yet to attract any public financing.

The West’s Leaders
Meanwhile, leaders in arid Western states are already pushing for advancements in water technology. Speaking at a November 1, 2004 town hall meeting, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, counseled her state to “develop a culture of conservation.” She announced the establishment of a world-class center for water research that would not only ensure a sustainable supply of clean water for the state’s growing communities, but would also develop knowledge and expertise that could be sold to other dry regions.

“[The center] will be a clearinghouse for new water management technology to be exported worldwide,” Governor Napolitano said, “thus creating a major new economic driver for Arizona.”

Arizona certainly has much to teach about innovative water stewardship. The state has figured out how to more effectively recycle used water. Cities utilize innovative strategies to “bank” water underground and stretch limited supplies. And today the citizens of Tucson boast one of the nation’s lowest per capita rates for residential outdoor water use.

Meanwhile, Pete Domenici, the Republican U.S. Senator from New Mexico, introduced Congressional legislation in 2004 to authorize annual $200 million investments in water supply technology, research, and development. A significant portion of the money would fund efforts at the University of New Mexico and at laboratories in Sandia and Los Alamos, N.M.

“After decades of neglect, it is time for water research to become a priority,” Senator Domenici said. “We can no longer afford to invest in water in drips and drabs when it is vividly apparent that water-related issues will create some of the most significant domestic and international dilemmas facing us this century.”

A Great Opportunity
Indeed, even communities in the water-rich Great Lakes Basin face beach closings due to sewage spills, user conflicts over plummeting groundwater sources, and public health concerns due to tainted supplies.

Mr. Newhof is especially concerned about the changing nature of the contaminants in the water supply. He points to federal research identifying traces of contraceptives, human growth hormones, and other pharmaceutical substances circulating in the water downstream from municipal treatment plants — an indication that current treatment facilities are not successfully treating such compounds. His plan is to resurrect the Monroe Avenue Filtration Plant for a 21st-century encore that could help fix the problem.

The Monroe Avenue plant once set the standard for how a modern society provides its citizens with safe drinking water. When it began operation in 1912, the pioneering fortress of pipes and filters became only the second facility in the nation with special features for treating a public water supply. The plant quickly eradicated the typhoid fever epidemic then plaguing Grand Rapids. Its success — fever deaths dropped from 25 a year to less than two after the plant opened — led cities across the United States to adopt the new technology and defeat the dangerous disease.

“National experts say the Monroe plant and others like it made the greatest advance in medical science in the history of the world, including all the research on cancer and heart disease,” said Mr. Newhof. “They saved more lives than any other medical advance by stopping the epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and other water-borne diseases.”

“But the technology,” he added, “has stayed there for 100 years.”

Show Them the Money
Today, the stately red brick building that once stood at the forefront of scientific advancements to protect public health sits idle near the bottom of Health Hill, the world-class medical research hub that is Grand Rapids’ piece of Michigan’s booming, $3 billion-per-year biotechnology business.

Mr. Newhof’s plan is to transform the long-abandoned Monroe Avenue plant into the Global Enterprise for Water Technology. Where others see weeds and blown-out windows, he sees a unique facility with huge water storage capacity that provides the ability to conduct industrial-scale research unlike any lab in the world. Teamed at times with the bioneers up on Health Hill, researchers at the facility would develop new ways to treat, distribute, conserve, and reuse water. They could also provide a boost for Michigan’s badly slumping economy by establishing a foundation for more high-skill, high-wage jobs.

“The GEWT has the potential to attract researchers, scholars, and entrepreneurs from all over the world,” said Mr. Newhof, who is president of the nascent Enterprise. “We’ve had contacts with several companies expressing interest in coming to the facility. One is U.S. Filter, a giant in the water treatment technology industry. Another is Osmonics, a leading filter manufacturer. The challenge is finding the financial resources to get the project started.”

The struggle to find investment capital for the ambitious project reflects Michigan’s ongoing struggle to grow new, technology-based economic opportunities. Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, tacitly acknowledged the problem in her 2005 State of the State address when she announced that “making our state a worldwide center of research and innovation” was now her top priority. Governor Granholm proposed a $2 billion state bond to grow new jobs and make over the state economy for the Digital Age.

“This investment in Michigan’s future,” the governor said, “will allow us to transform the state that put the nation on wheels into the state that makes those wheels run on pollution-free fuel cells or bio-diesel technology; the state where research into alternative energies is done; the state where the clean technology is developed and where clean cars, products, and businesses are built. And Michigan, the Great Lakes State, could be the state that finally makes these United States independent of foreign oil.”

Although some Republican leaders in the state Legislature attack the bond proposal, the goals outlined by the governor are laudable and realistic. As the skirmish over getting the initiative onto the statewide ballot continues, leaders on both sides of the aisle should also consider another goal that is just as laudable and realistic: Becoming the state that shows the world how to sustain a clean, robust, and durable supply of fresh water.

Given Michigan’s growing medical research industry and long history of technical innovation, state incentives and investments that help companies work on new ways to provide safe and affordable water supplies make perfect sense. In a special February 1999 report on biotechnology and water protection, the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century wrote:

“Water is becoming more scarce and more difficult to access. The biotechnological approach is becoming increasingly important in addressing the problems of water security facing agriculture, the environment, and human health.”

Targeting the development of this emerging industry is a groundbreaking opportunity to continue transforming the state’s economy. Michigan is clearly shifting from an aging Industrial Era economic development model to one that meets the challenges of the 21st century. A strategy to expand the state’s increasingly successful life sciences initiative also can help secure a freshwater supply for the Great Lakes — and the world.

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