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Feds Pony Up Toward Great Lakes Water ‘Magic’

If your image of Milwaukee is largely derived from Laverne and Shirley re-runs, think again. My recent visit with leaders of Milwaukee’s Water Council showed me how communities in the Great Lakes are beginning to tap the “magic” of water for economic revitalization (the words of Milwaukee Mayor, and maybe-gubernatorial candidate, Tom Barrett). 

The Milwaukee River running through town used to be a mess, and the only thing that looked out on it was the backs of factories. Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce CEO Tim Sheehy explained, “We opened it up for development; now it is lined with shops, restaurants, condos and offices. When we bring CEOs to town, we don’t put them in a car. We put them in a boat and show off our city.”

These efforts in Milwaukee and other Great Lakes metros are getting a major shot in the arm with President Obama signing a bill that provides $475 million in Great Lakes cleanup dollars. This “down-payment” on a long term multi-billion dollar federal-state-local plan to clean water and reboot municipal waste systems (so beaches are open and not closed for weeks during the year); to cleanup toxic hot spots still lingering in Great Lakes harbors and rivers, and protect and reclaim wetlands and scenic areas was promised by then-candidate Obama last year. 

The promise he made during the campaign to follow up on a Bush-era Great Lakes clean up plan that had been languishing in Congress, was muscled forward, aided by the Healthy Waters, Strong Economy economic analysis of its prospects.

The 2007 report provided compelling empirical data that this cleanup was much more than a nice thing to do for the environment, it could also be a jobs and economic development engine for Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New York--helping these industrial states reboot as attractive choice places to live and work, as well as fuel their clean-technology industries.

So these efforts are now paying off--and there is more to come. Not only is Milwaukee a very attractive place, it is becoming a global leader in a cutting edge arena. Milwaukee was recently designated a UN global compact city for water and has been invited to join six other global cities--Prague, Shanghai, Berlin, Paris, and Rabat (Morocco)--working together to learn, model and share sustainable water uses for the planet. 

A vital ingredient in beer (clean water) is now a vital ingredient in global sustainable development. Milwaukee and other Great Lakes cities are beginning to bottle the “magic."