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Making Wisconsin ‘the Silicon Valley of water’

“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 Freshwater Collaborative, which would bring together the university’s 13 campuses into a first-of-its-kind research hub specializing in 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 on June 10.

Whether the collaboration begins on July 1 or later is in the hands of the Legislature. UW officials say they cannot start their plans without money from the state’s 2019-21 budget, which last week moved from the Joint Finance Committee to the Senate and Assembly. The proposal calls for setting aside $10.7 million in the 2019-21 budget biennium to pay for the first part of a $27.6 million, six-year plan for the Freshwater Collaborative.

So far at least, there appears to be bipartisan support for such a plan. Generally speaking, both Democrats and Republicans recognize that everyone deserves to have clean drinking water.

The causes for concern are real. Rural corners of the state are tainted by pollutants from agriculture. Various places, including Madison, have had persistent anxieties about chemical pollutants. And others, such as Milwaukee, are grappling with contamination from lead pipes.

Gov. Tony Evers has declared 2019 to be the “year of clean drinking water” and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican from Rochester, has formed a task force to study water quality.

Rep. John Nygren, a Republican from Marinette and a chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, has expressed concerns that drinking wells in his district are contaminated by a group of highly toxic synthetic chemicals commonly known by the acronym PFAS. And UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone has said that state Sen. Alberta Darling, a chairwoman of the Joint Finance Committee, has told him that the Freshwater Collaborative is “too good to wait until the next budget cycle.”

Wisconsin’s geography — with the Mississippi River bordering it to the west and Great Lakes bordering it to the north and east — positions the state 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 lead the 13-campus collaboration.

By 2025, program officials want to enroll 1,000 new undergraduate students and 400 new graduate students, attract between $10 million and $15 million in new research money from federal and private agencies, hire 100 new faculty and researchers and create 650 jobs.

Val Klump, dean of UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences, said about a third of the money requested would go to scholarships for undergraduate students and another third to hiring faculty and staff employees. The rest would go toward marketing, recruitment and office employees.

Those numbers aren’t final, of course, since the spending hasn’t been approved. And that’s 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.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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