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A New Kind of Water Park

Restored filtration plant would host water-protection research

April 1, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bradford Ryder

The long-abandoned Monroe Avenue Filtration Plant, which once helped Grand Rapids stop a typhoid epidemic, could rise again as a research facility dedicated to developing new technologies for protecting freshwater supplies worldwide.

GRAND RAPIDS — Making a crucial connection between creating new jobs and protecting the planet’s water supply, a partner in an environmental engineering firm has applied for a grant from Michigan’s top economic development agency to transform the vacant and vandalized Monroe Avenue Filtration Plant here into a cutting-edge water technology research laboratory.

The large research facility, to be known as the Global Enterprise for Water Technology, would house the development of better ways to treat, distribute, conserve, and reuse water. In an interview, Tom Newhof,  president of Prein and Newhof, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that the Enterprise would help meet what he says is a rapidly rising demand for new technologies and management expertise that guarantee citizens and businesses affordable, sustainable, safe supplies of the increasingly scarce natural resource worldwide. 

“The historic treatment plant has the potential to attract researchers, scholars, and entrepreneurs from all over the world,” said Mr. Newhof, who is president of the Enterprise. “We’ve had numerous contacts with 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 recently acquired by General Electric. The challenge is finding the financial resources to get the project started.”

Avoiding a Water War
The proposal comes as Michigan struggles to balance the need to compete in the global economy with the need to protect the lakes, streams, and aquifers that define and nourish the region’s economy and culture.

Great Lakes communities historically have prospered by extracting and exporting natural resources such as fur, timber, copper, oil, and natural gas. That tradition is one reason why Michigan officials permitted Nestle Waters, the world’s largest purveyor of bottled water, to extract and sell spring water from the Muskegon River watershed despite an intense public outcry against the proposal. The extraction fit a familiar economic development formula that officials have used for centuries to create jobs and build economies.    

But today’s marketplace uses information, rather than copper or timber, as the defining raw material. And a region’s competitive advantage is now determined by its ability to attract talented workers, generate innovative ideas, and turn them into goods or services. Mr. Newhof essentially said his proposal offers Great Lakes Basin lawmakers, economic development officials, and entrepreneurs an opportunity to protect the world’s dwindling water supplies and solve its growing water pollution problems by developing and exporting water protection technologies rather than selling off Great Lakes water — something the region’s citizens and lawmakers have feared for a century.

“The Enterprise can be an exceptional educational facility,” Mr. Newhof said. “There’s room for serious scientific research, classrooms and industry training, and conference rooms and technology demonstrations. Anything that’s generated here in the way of knowledge certainly could be transmitted to the academic community, the technical community, and the broader global community.”

Reviving an Innovative History
The Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant once set the standard for how modern society provided safe water for citizens and businesses. The red brick fortress of pumps and pioneering filters began operating in 1912 and quickly eradicated the epidemic of typhoid fever that plagued this city. Its new technology spread to other cities as well, helping them defeat the dangerous disease.

Then, in 1945, the plant became the first in the nation to treat the public water supply with fluoride to combat tooth decay. In 1999 the American Society of Civil Engineers voted the plant, which was decommissioned in 1992, one of Michigan’s top ten 20th -century engineering achievements

Mr. Newhof’s plan for the building would mark a revival of its highly innovative history. But instead of attacking typhoid or tooth decay, the newly restored and drastically updated Enterprise would address freshwater pollution and scarcity problems in communities around the world.

A ready market for such expertise already exists, according to the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, an international association of Nobel laureates, policymakers, and scientists. The Commission found that 1.4 billion people on the planet now live without clean drinking water and that seven million people die each year from water-related diseases. What’s more, the problem is accelerating: Water waste and misuse are depleting more than half of the world’s lakes and rivers, according to a brochure promoting the Enterprise.

Encouraging A Fundamental Shift
The vast Great Lakes ecosystem itself faces similar challenges. But the traditional attitude toward managing freshwater resources is evolving.

This changing notion is apparent in highly industrialized Great Lakes cities like Gary, Ind., where local governments now work to clean up a dingy steel-strewn shoreline, raise the standard of living, and compete for new businesses, workers, and families. And the new philosophy is evident in the boardrooms of venerable institutions like Ford Motor Company, where leaders now embrace voluntary water stewardship measures as a way to reduce operating costs, increase profits, and imbue its corporate culture with more mainstream, eco-friendly values.

“A fundamental shift is taking place right now in how we view the value and role of water in our economy and society,” said Rich Bowman, executive director for the Michigan Council of Trout Unlimited and a candidate to become the new director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

“The last big evolution in thinking about natural resources occurred in the 1970’s with the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, which were all about stopping pollution,” Mr. Bowman said. “But that view didn’t really look at the environment as a dynamic system where everything — the land, air, water, fish, etc. — interacts. The next logical step is to have a much broader understanding of environmental dynamics and realize that there are lots of things we can do — like withdraw water — but we have to do those activities in a way that fits into the environmental system and doesn’t degrade its functionality.”

“Our public agencies and officials are really struggling with that concept right now,” he added.

The Michigan Legislature, for instance, recently resisted attempts to finance water pollution monitoring, regulation, and prevention efforts by charging fees for the permits the state issues to facilities that discharge toxic waste into lakes, streams, and sewers. The reason? Legislators claimed that new fees could reduce the state’s ability to attract and retain business.

The Best of the Best
The Enterprise would upend such logic by incubating what could be a large number of highly profitable, employment-intensive businesses focused on protecting, rather than harmfully exploiting, freshwater supplies. The project, which has sought public and private financing since 2000, requested approximately $3.5 million from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, according to Paul Krepps, managing director of communications for the agency.

The proposal is one of 131 separate projects now competing for $24 million in the state’s Technology Tri-Corridor initiative, an economic development strategy designed to foster the life sciences, automotive technology, and homeland security industries. 

The American Association for the Advancement of Science will peer-review the proposals and make recommendations to the Technology Tri-Corridor Steering Committee, which is made up of academics, public officials, and business representatives. That committee is expected to make final decisions this summer.

“This is really a situation where the best of the best receive funding,” Mr. Krepps said.

Andy Guy, a journalist, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Water Security Project and manages the Institute’s office in Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.


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