Cheap Great Lakes Water Offered In Exchange For Jobs

Sustainable urban aquaponics: the Sweetwater Organics example in Milwaukee WI.

Image credit:Sweetwater Organics blog.

It's quite common for US state and local officials to entice businesses to build factories by offering to defer or cut taxes, give free land for factories, make cash grants, build new roads, and so on. The latest incentive in the economic development toolbox: Great Lakes water offered to industry at discount rates.

In the fall of 2009, Milwaukee officials and community leaders began discussing the idea of offering businesses especially cheap water for a period if they committed to relocating to or building new facilities in the Milwaukee area. Read all about it in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal's article: City may use water to lure businesses: Job-creating firms could get break on water bills. Although superficially, this may seem quite sensible, there is a high risk of unintended and unwanted consequences if a cheap water incentive were offered to all comers. The choice is one of seeking sustainable industry or returning to the Iron Age trade offs of environmental degradation and hidden impacts on taxpayers.

Strategic context.

Duluth, Green Bay, Escanaba, Marquette, Munising, Green Bay, Racine, Kenosha, Chicago, Toledo, Erie, Buffalo, Toronto and other Great Lakes cities all are capable of making a similar offer of cheap water for jobs. In that context, any well-led business would step back into due dillegence, looking for possible unintended consequence down the road.

High industrial water consumption brings other intensities.

Water-intensive industries very often also are energy intensive, and also tend to have high air and water pollution burdens. The much diminished paper and steel industries, once common in the Midwest, exemplify the pairing of water and energy intensities with water and air pollution.

For every gallon of water taken in by industry, there will be some fraction of a gallon discharged into public sewers: typically flowing into a publicly owned treatment works (POTW), constructed and operated at public expense.

Water supplies from Lake Michigan are, for local purposes, near infinite. On the other hand, both sewerage treatment capacity and ability of Lake Michigan to assimilate pollution are limited. Overuse can have hidden direct and indirect costs. Logical questions to precede any water sale to industry, then are:

  • is there excess treatment capacity at the sewerage treatment plant which matches the discharge potential of water intensive industries?

  • could waste water discharges from a single, new polluting industry potentially "limit out' waste water treatment capacity, excluding other job opportunities?

  • is it possible to compare jobs creation potential per million gallons per day of wastewater discharged by industry sector?

It comes as no surprise that cheap industrial water proponents may initially overlook such questions, and also fail to see the value of focusing the job hunt on industries which have management systems that drive toward resource efficiency. A much finer screen - narrowing the invitation list to those industries that have the highest yield per unit of raw material consumption and actively seek production technologies with reduced energy intensity levels - would eliminate some of the inherent risk of starting a

Great Lakes water rush

'Yous guys,' as they say in Milwaukee, have a choice.

Proposing to open up a long protected water resource as jobs bait, without also considering up front the protections that have ensured its value for 40 years, can easily lead to political grid lock. Perhaps there can be found a win-win business model that gets the local economy going with reduced risk of degradation? Like Sweet Water, for example:

Located in Bayview at 2151 S. Robinson Ave, Milwaukee, WI Google Map, Sweet Water Organics is the first major commercial upgrading of MacArthur genius Will Allen's aquaculture methodologies, i.e. a three-tiered, aquaponic, bio-intensive fish-vegetable garden. Sweet Water is the anchor project in the transformation of a massive industrial building in an "industrial slum" into a show-case of the potential of living technologies and high-value added urban agriculture. Sweet Water's sustainable aquaculture system harvests urban waste streams, e.g. wood chips, cardboard, veggie residues, coffee grounds, and brewers mash, along vermiculture lines, yielding the richest possible soil. This soil in hundreds of potted plants on the simulated wetland tiers is key to the transformation of fish wastes into natural nitrate for plant growth and water filtration. The fish nourish the plants. The plants clean the water, and, in the case of tilapia, feed the fish!

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