URC Water Tour Highlights Michigan’s Blue Economy Opportunities

Forget about oil or gold. In a few decades, clean, fresh water might be the most valuable commodity in the world, and Michigan is preparing now to stake its claim on the coming bounty.

The Great Lakes surrounding Michigan hold 18 percent of the world’s fresh water and 90 percent of the nation’s surface freshwater. That represents a major opportunity in the so-called blue economy, and the University Research Corridor (URC) kicked off a statewide tour last week meant to highlight the importance of water to Michigan’s economic future.

The three universities that make up the URC—Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State University — snagged nearly $300 million in awards for water-related research between 2009 and 2013.

Jeff Mason, who leads the URC, says that his group commissioned a report by the Anderson Economic Group, released in June, that details Michigan’s strengths in the water sector. He says the 2,100 research awards led to innovations in a variety of areas, from dealing with invasive species in the Great Lakes to monitoring water quality and finding ways to optimize water use in agriculture. One in five Michigan jobs—more than 718,000—are water-enabled (manufacturing, agriculture) or are tied to core water technologies. And each year, the three URC institutions produce more than 3,400 graduates with degrees in a water-related field such as civil engineering or public health.

Michigan’s history and quality of life is closely tied to water, Mason says, and the purpose of the tour—stops include Lake St. Clair Metropark, Houghton, Muskegon, Bay City/Saginaw, and Traverse City—is to “bring together collaborators in the blue economy space.”

The discussion on the tour also focused on the group Huron to Erie Alliance for Research and Training (HEART), whose work focuses on improving the ecosystems of Lakes Huron and Erie. As Mason explains, it’s a collaboration with Wayne State University, Macomb Community College, Huron-Clinton Metroparks, and Macomb County to set up research centers at Lake St. Clair Metro Park and Detroit’s Belle Isle. “They’ll be looking at issues like water safety and cleanliness and conducting all kinds of water-related research activities,” he says.

The URC and HEART are among the Michigan groups working to make sure the state has a significant presence in the future of water technology and innovations. The Anderson report found that demand for freshwater technology is estimated to be $400 billion per year globally, including $100 billion in the U.S. alone. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the nation’s drinking water infrastructure will need $384 billion in investment by 2030. Developing nations have even more urgent water infrastructure needs, estimated to be worth trillions of dollars.

“Michigan is one of the natural places to focus attention,” Mason says. “Universities are key places where early-stage innovations occur.”

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