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Cities Look to Water for Innovation

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Cities Look to Water for Innovation

Cities across the world are going through a major shift from agrarian and rural living conditions to dense urban living.  As of 2011, for the first time in the history of man, more than half of the world’s population lived in cities.  Though there are many benefits to humans living in cities, there are also many challenges.  One of these challenges is a growing water scarcity problem in many urban areas.  How can cities provide ever-drinking water and  sanitation services  fit to meet the expectations of an ever-growing middle class? Innovation is the answer.  Nationally, cities such as Milwaukee and Chicago are leading the charge by thinking of creative and innovative ways to use the water they possess with greater efficiency.

Milwaukee sits along the shores of Lake Michigan, at the convergence of three rivers — the Menomonee, the Kinnickinnic, and the Milwaukee. The lake provides approximately 1 billion gallons of fresh drinking water each day.  Access to such large amounts of water has lead the Milwaukee Water Council, a nonprofit organization that brings together the region’s water industries and universities, to dub Wisconsin as the “Silicon Valley” of fresh water.

Indeed, innovative ideas for the use of water are taking off in Milwaukee.  The eleven county area is already home to 194 water-related companies that work on everything from aquaponics, a method for farming fish year-round on land, to innovative ways of managing storm-water runoff.  “There is nothing else like this in the United States at all,” says Dean Amhaus, president and CEO of the Water Council. “The goal is create a world hub that grows companies and entrepreneurs [focused on] developing ways to use water more efficiently and return it at a high quantity and quality.”

Chicago is another city that is providing a blueprint for the rest of the country in water innovation.  In May of 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a forceful letter to the State of Illinois stressing that the state should adopt new water quality standards for major stretches of the Chicago Area Waterway System, including the Chicago River. The EPA indicated that portions of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers must be upgraded to protect the health and safety of people who use these waterways for recreation.

Enter Debra Shore; the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.  Under Shore’s leadership, the rivers are much cleaner now than they were years ago, largely due to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s innovative use of ultraviolet light or chlorination to kill more of the bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens in treated wastewater.  The MWRD has also placed considerable effort in capturing combined sewer overflows in the Deep Tunnel and reservoirs to treat storm water before releasing it into the waterways.

In the future, Shore hopes to promote green infrastructure through the use of rain barrels.  Rain barrels can be used to capture rain off roofs and then reused to irrigate gardens stays in the natural hydrologic cycle and out of the sewers. The MRWD plans to distribute 15,000 55-gallon rain barrels in the next few years. They’ll capture 825,000 gallons in each quarter-inch rain event.

Can the City of Providence be the next great water innovator?  Brett Smiley, the Providence Water Supply Board Chairman & President of CFO Consulting Group, LLC, certainly hopes so. “One of our great assets is that we have adequate fresh water; the dilemma is we have unequal distribution,” Smiley said. “Northern Rhode Island is water-rich and southern Rhode Island is water-poor.”  That is why Smiley and the Providence Water Supply Board, which services a majority of Rhode Island water customers, is proposing that Rhode Island move to a more regional system of governance of its water supply.  This ability to pool resources, which is based on best practices now employed in many other states, will improve service delivery, foster efficiency and reduce costs.

The Providence Water Supply Board is proposing, through legislation proposed in May of this year, the creation of the Ocean State Water (OSW) – a new publicly managed and resourced water authority. OSW will be a new entity, separate and apart from any existing water authority or supplier. OSW, through its regionally-representative board, will produce, distribute, and sell water.

CFO Consulting Group is looking forward to seeing the State of Rhode Island become one of leaders of water innovation in the country by enabling and supporting companies to invest in Rhode Island.  CFO hopes to help Rhode Island become a world leader in evolving field of water innovation with the creation of this new regional authority which will provide the modern governance structure essential to protecting Rhode Island’s water supply and ensuring safe drinking water in the long-term.