Wisconsin leads the nation into the future of fresh water

by Christy Klein

Originally “Mekonsing” or “River Running Through a Red Place,” the state is named for the Wisconsin River that cuts through the center of our state. To the east, Lake Michigan holds over one quadrillion gallons of water. Lake Superior’s three quadrillion gallons — the deepest and largest of the Great Lakes — sits to the north, while the Mississippi River follows the southwestern border. 


Our wetlands are abundant and our rivers run deep. Wisconsin holds more than 15,000 lakes while its rivers and streams cover more than 84,000 miles of terrain — with 32,000 of those miles running throughout the year, regardless of season or snowmelt. 


However, as climate change, contamination and population continue to endanger the global freshwater supply, our freshwater becomes more and more valuable. Where oil was the commodity of the 20th century, water will dominate in the 21st. Places with fresh water will flourish as climate change shifts weather patterns and droughts become more common. 

The Milwaukee River meets the Menomonee and the Kinnickinnick Rivers at the Milwaukee Confluence. Centuries ago, fur traders and French explorers traveled the Milwaukee River to trade with the Indigenous tribes who lived along its banks. Photography by Perri Moran.

The state’s forward-thinking, centuries-long connection to water has led Wisconsin to emerge as an unexpected leader in water technology, water stewardship and the fight for survival in the national water crisis. Leaders across Wisconsin are moving forward to keep the state at the forefront of water technology for decades to come.


Much of that work is happening in Milwaukee, located on Lake Michigan at the confluence of three rivers: the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic. “Minwaking,” which means “gathering place by the water,” drew Native Americans to the area due to its rich land and strategic location. The city’s proximity to water drew in water-intensive industries like brewing, tanneries, meatpacking and transportation — all of which drove water innovation in the 1800s.


Now, the state’s largest city is home to more than 150 water-related companies like A.O. Smith, Badger Meter, Pentair and Veolia; The Water Council; and the country’s only School of Freshwater Sciences at UW–Milwaukee. Milwaukee has risen as the water capital of the United States and has brought Wisconsin to the forefront of the future of water. 


The Water Council, a nonprofit organization in downtown Milwaukee, is dedicated to freshwater innovation and water stewardship by collaborating with the water industry’s movers and shakers in finding innovative solutions to critical global water issues. The organization operates as a global nerve center of freshwater innovation. 


In 2009, the same year the organization incorporated into a nonprofit, the United Nations designated Milwaukee a U.N. Global Compact City, one of 13 cities in the world selected for its concentration and expertise in a specific topic related to global health and development at that time. In the following years, The Water Council has established a booming network of water industry go-getters by connecting businesses, utilities, scholars, government and innovators to help bring water users into the future.

The Water Council operates a pilot program to bring innovators to businesses willing to implement new technology. One of last year’s recipients, Water Warriors out of Kentucky, uses something called Poseidon Pellets to absorb phosphorus and ammonia from runoff and stormwater. Phosphorus is an element in water that contributes to toxic blue-green algae blooms that can ultimately lead to water quality issues.


“It goes back 150 to 160 years ago,” says The Water Council president and CEO Dean Amhaus. “The breweries came in because of the access to the water, to the rivers, to the grains and the farms, and those breweries needed companies to help them process water. So that’s really the genesis of what’s become now the water-tech industry. It really goes back to producing beer.”


The UW–Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences found its home here for similar reasons: access to the water and Milwaukee’s long-standing history of water innovation. Originally founded in 1966 as the Center for Great Lakes Studies, its graduate program was established in 2009. The school recently started its undergraduate program in 2021 and is the only school dedicated to the study of fresh water in the entire country.


“Milwaukee has really been a force in research for a while and in education and outreach on the Great Lakes,” says Rebecca Klaper, interim dean of the School of Freshwater Sciences. 


The School of Freshwater Sciences has been a source of groundbreaking research in freshwater. The school’s program in Great Lakes Aquaculture research specializes in urban aquaculture, a process that allows freshwater fish to be bred, reared and harvested in repurposed urban buildings. As agriculture in the west becomes increasingly endangered, the development of urban aquaponics has the potential to play a significant role in the new and expanding food revolution. 


The school’s Great Lakes Genomics Center is internationally known for its expertise in using genomics to address pollution concerns in fresh water. Their research consists of measuring ecosystem health, identifying the introduction of invasive species, sequencing coronavirus strains in wastewater and more.

While Milwaukee has built a reputation in the water industry and innovation, Wisconsin itself can stand alone as a giant in fresh water. According to Todd Ambs, former deputy secretary at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin has 1,110 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and 5.3 million acres of wetlands. Nearly 1,600 of the state’s stream and river miles are recognized as the state’s highest-quality water resources. We have enough groundwater that if it were laid evenly over the state, it would be 100 feet deep. 


For Ambs, what sets Wisconsin apart in water is our ability to manage it.


“We’ve got some leaders in terms of how water management is done,” Ambs says, pointing to the Madison Metropolitan Sewer Districts, Green Bay’s wastewater treatment system and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District’s work with both wastewater and habitat preservation and restoration. “People that do this work for a living will look to Milwaukee for some of the leading technology and efforts that are underway nationally.”


Ambs led negotiations for the state as the eight Great Lakes states created the Great Lakes Compact, which bars any large-scale water diversions outside the Great Lakes basin. With Congress’s approval, former President George W. Bush signed it into law in 2008.


Shaili Pfeiffer, staff specialist at the DNR Bureau of Drinking Water and Groundwater Water Use Section, explained the heavy-handed policy as a means of water management. 


“You can’t manage water if you don’t know what the water is that you have, and you don’t know who is using it,” Pfeiffer says. “So you need to know who’s using it, what they’re using it for and then how much they’re using.”


In Wisconsin, however, policies for water protection have been commonplace throughout state history.


The Riverwalk follows along the Milwaukee River and allows pedestrians to explore the shoreline. The early settlements once occupied by Indigenous people and fur traders have long since been replaced by a modern and cosmopolitan cityscape. Photography by Perri Moran.

The state enacted the nation’s first shore land protection law in 1965 and tackled the issue of pollution from lawns and farm fields in 1977, filling a gap in the 1972 Clean Water Act. In 1983, by achieving secondary treatment for all wastewater facilities in the state, Wisconsin was the first to meet the Clean Water Act’s interim goal for wastewater standards.


To keep those waterways clean and accessible, water stewardship and water policy are critical. Dedication to free and public access to waterways is woven into the state constitution, declaring that all navigable waters are “common highways and forever free” to be held in public trust. For many, not only does this mean water use, but water quality. 


Wisconsin’s reputation for water innovation and stewardship has primed the state as a leader in the future of water. At The Water Council, the two go hand-in-hand. 


Matt Howard, The Water Council’s vice president for water stewardship, considers water stewardship to be crucial to the future of water. For him, stewardship means determining what needs attention, implementing the technology and then using the technology purposefully.


“We want to start working with businesses on the internal operation … ‘So what are the best practices for operating a facility?’” Howard says. “Once you have a fuller understanding of how you’re using water and impacting water resources, then go out and find the right technology and right innovations to help you address those challenges or opportunities that we’re facing.” 


One of the challenges that the country faces is the water shortage in the west. As a result of a 20-year drought, the Colorado River is drying up, putting seven states, 29 federally recognized tribes and northern Mexico all at risk of losing drinking water and electricity. 


Howard points to the Colorado River Compact, an agreement settled between the seven states and various tribes regarding water allocation, as the beginning of the end. While there have been technology implementations like smart meters and dams, the American West has grown overly reliant upon innovation and ignored stewardship. 


“If you don’t marry any of that with practice, you get yourself in a situation that they’re in right now,” Howard says.


While several movements are stirring in the West in response to the drought and water scarcity, Wisconsin will likely have a hand in leading the country as a whole into a freshwater future. With Wisconsin’s leadership in pioneering water policies for centuries, The Water Council has had its eye on the west for some time. 


“It’s around the quantity, but it’s also the quality of water,” Amhaus says.“So those companies [out West] have been doing that, and they will continue to do that as well. And we see ourselves as a solution provider.” 

The Gathering Place

Take a dive into Milwaukee's role in Wisconsin's water legacy

Video produced by Christy Klein and Thomas Hill, video by Christy Klein and Kristaps Zvaigzne. Featured photo by Perri Moran.