“The Silicon Valley of water.”
Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Turning Wisconsin into just that is the goal of the University of Wisconsin System’s launch of a Freshwater Collaborative, which would bring together its 13 campuses into a first-of-its-kind research hub focused on water topics. Individual campuses would distinguish themselves as expertise centers in specific fields, come up with solutions, train the next generation of researchers and possibly recruit more students amid a decline in enrollment, the Wisconsin State Journal reported June 10.
Whether the launch begins July 1 or later is in the hands of the state Legislature; System officials say they cannot start the initiative without money from the 2019-21 budget, which last week moved from the Joint Finance Committee to the full houses of the Senate and Assembly for a vote. The proposal calls for $10.7 million in the 2019-21 budget biennium to fund the first portion of the $27.6 million, six-year plan for the Freshwater Collaborative.
But there appears to be bipartisan support of such an initiative, as the state’s Democrats and Republicans recognize that everyone, whether living in a rural location or urban, needs clean drinking water, and that problems obtaining and maintaining that exist throughout Wisconsin.
Rural corners of the state are tainted by pollutants from agriculture, several areas including Madison are grappling with emerging chemical contaminants and Milwaukee faces a lead pipe crisis.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 the “year of clean drinking water” and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, formed a task force to study water quality.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, co-chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, has expressed concern about drinking water wells in his district that are contaminated by a group of highly toxic synthetic chemicals commonly known by the acronym PFAS.
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And UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone said state Sen. Alberta Darling, Joint Finance co-chairwoman, told him that the Freshwater Collaborative is “too good to wait until the next budget cycle.”
Wisconsin’s geography — with the Mississippi River bordering the state’s west side and Great Lakes bordering its north and east portions — positions itself to be a leader in research on water science, economics, technology and entrepreneurship.
“The University of Wisconsin System has an unfair advantage when it comes to water and we need to take advantage of that,” Mone told the UW System Board of Regents at a meeting earlier this month. UW-Milwaukee would spearhead the 13-campus collaboration.
By 2025, the program aims to enroll 1,000 new undergraduate students and 400 new graduate students, attract between $10 million and $15 million in new research funding from federal and private agencies, hire 100 new faculty and researchers and create 650 new jobs.
Val Klump, dean of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, said about a third of the money requested would go toward scholarships for undergraduate students and another third to hiring faculty and staff. The rest would go toward marketing, recruitment and office staff overseeing the collaboration.
Those numbers aren’t final, of course, as the spending hasn’t been approved. Which is good, because we’re not sure that as much as one-third of the money should go to marketing, recruitment and office staff.
But the idea is promising, for Wisconsin and beyond.
“The whole idea is to recruit more students to Wisconsin and to offer them something unique to the nation,” Klump said.
This is an opportunity for the State of Wisconsin, through the UW System, to become a research and innovation hub for water management. The Legislature and Gov. Tony Evers should seize that opportunity.