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Making Milwaukee a 'Water Hub' Important, But Not Just For Region

Rich Meeusen describes the state of water at South Suburban Chamber gathering.

“Edgy” is not normally a term associated with a guy who talks about water.

Rich Meeusen, however, is not a normal guy.

In between wise cracks about his wife, college sex and philosophy majors, Meeusen eloquently presented the case for how Milwaukee can become a global water hub and the dire water crisis facing the world at a lunch gathering Thursday at Wheaton Franciscan.

State legislators, municipal government leaders and South Suburban chamber members were on hand for Meeusen's wildly entertaining, hour-plus speech, sponsored by the chamber and Ottawa University as part of a quarterly luncheon lecture series.

Meeusen is chief executive of Badger Meter, a century-old Milwaukee company offering water flow products for water utilities as well as commercial and industrial uses.

It's in his other role, as co-chair of the M7 Water Council, in which Meeusen has become a leader in making the Milwaukee area a hub for water-related industries and research.

Meeusen was instrumental in bringing together more than 130 area companies that all had something to offer when it came to water. What made it work was the realization that none of them were really competing with each other, Meeusen said. Rather, each offered a unique service and could benefit from other companies remaining healthy and viable.

As the companies came together, the council focused on three primary components: economic development, talent development and technology development.

That meant things like encouraging the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to build a school of Freshwater Sciences, the first-ever in the United States. And offering paid internships to encourage college students to enter a water-related field. And convincing Meeusen's alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, to offer a minor in water.

Their efforts have further led to the ongoing development of an area on Milwaukee's south side to house various water-related facilities under one roof, making it easier to grow the hub and providing the region with much-needed economic development.

It's all key to taking advantage of that giant lake to the east and, more broadly, the Great Lakes, which accounts for 21 percent of Earth's freshwater.

While Meeusen sprinkled in funny anecdotes throughout - likening his experience climbing through a pipe in the Hoover Dam as his version of porn, for example - he was ultra-serious when describing the water shortage facing the planet.

While the attention of politicians and the media has been focused on global warming, Meeusen said the global water shortage is much more real and is affecting people this very second.

There is simply not enough water to go around. Earth has 4.3 trillion cubic yards of water when it needs 4.5 trillion cubic yards to supply the population, Meeusen said. The shortage means that a child dies every 20 seconds from a lack of water.

Worse, the need will grow to 6.9 trillion cubic yards by 2030.

The "water gap" is being addressed by the technology development component of the M7 Water Council's goals. Local companies are working on how to close the water gap, and that mission is the most important the council will tackle.

"This is not about economic development. This is not about talent development," Meeusen said. "This is about a child dying every 20 seconds."

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