From The Editor | August 18, 2014

The Top 12 Water Technology Hotspots In America

Laura Martin

By Laura Martin


Milwaukee is known as ‘Brew City,’ while steel is Pittsburgh’s claim to fame. Tacoma is the birthplace of Bing Crosby, while Beyoncé calls Houston home. Tucson is sunny 85 percent of the time, while Cincinnati experienced one of its snowiest winters this year.  

Despite their differences, all of these cities have one big thing in common—they are committed to furthering water technology. Those six cities, along with Colorado, Michigan, Massachusetts, Nevada, Northeast Ohio, and Central/Southern California, have been identified by the EPA as water technology innovation clusters—regional groupings of businesses, government, research institutions, and other organizations focused on the future of water.  It is expected that additional clusters will be identified as water research and technology efforts grow nationwide.

“The Water Technology Innovation Cluster program is a way to solve water problems and create economic opportunities at the same time,” said Sally Gutierrez, EPA Environmental Technology Innovation Cluster Development and Support Program Director.The idea is to try and leverage the significant and robust assets in each region—like very innovative water utilities, a strong investment network, and significant research organizations.”

Many of the identified clusters have existed for some time, but the EPA didn’t begin taking an active role in supporting them until 2010. For now, only water clusters have been identified, but plans to identify other types of environmental technology innovation clusters are in the works.

The cluster program grew out of Cincinnati, where the Southwest Ohio/Northern Kentucky/Southeast Indiana cluster is now based.  EPA Cincinnati is one of the largest federal research and development water laboratories in the country with more than 180 laboratories. The rest of the clusters were identified because there are similarly robust water research or water technology business hubs, or because they had the potential to become one.

“One of the drivers for selecting the clusters was to look for areas of strength where you could say ‘wow we could really bring innovation to bear here,’” explained Gutierrez. “Many of these efforts are still growing and have been more grass roots, driven by people in the area that really care about their communities.”

The clusters are working to tackle a variety of barriers to water technology innovation, including patenting and intellectual property protection, regulatory restrictions, access to research and information about new technology, and funding. Water scarcity, reuse, and water-related agriculture challenges are the focus at many of the Western-based clusters, while the Midwest and Eastern clusters are more concerned about aging water infrastructure and preventing combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Despite the different goals each cluster has, all work closely together. 

“What we are trying to do is build a network of these clusters across the country and invite them to talk to each other and work on common issues,” said Gutierrez.

So far, increased communication between technology providers, research organizations, utilities, and investors has been the biggest success of the cluster program.

“End users now have a way to really articulate the kind of technology they need to the organizations that have the ability to make those technologies happen,” said Gutierrez. “When you bring everyone working in the water space together you can do some marvelous things.”

Here’s a closer look at each of the 12 clusters. This list only includes currently identified clusters, and may not include all that are currently working with the EPA cluster program. The list appears in no particular order.

Midwest U.S.  Clusters

Cincinnati, OH/Southwest Ohio/Northern Kentucky/Southeast Indiana

Cluster: Confluence Water Technology Innovation Cluster

The water cluster that spearheaded the cluster program, Confluence, based in Cincinnati, is dedicated to the core concepts the EPA cluster program is all about— identifying, testing, developing, and commercializing innovative technologies that solve water challenges and create jobs. The cluster focuses particularly on technologies that are sustainable, water and energy efficient, cost-effective for the utilities and consumers, address a broad array of contaminants, and improve public health. To facilitate this, the Confluence cluster hosts an annual water symposium, which brings together leaders from the water industry, government, and universities, to network and share perspectives on regional, national, and global water challenges.

Northeast Ohio

Cluster: NorTech

In Northeast Ohio, the water innovation cluster is the result of a larger technology innovative.  NorTech, a technology-focused group that works to accelerate the pace of innovation in Northeast Ohio, recently moved into the water space. They are focusing specifically on developing technologies to address water contaminants generated by industrial water cleaning and treatment, hydraulic fracturing, CSOs, and stormwater runoff. NorTech is also targeting specific water sectors for growth and job creation. They have determined that the most promising technologies needed in the water space are automation and control, sorbents, and water system corrosion protection. Together, the three sectors have the potential to create 3,510 jobs by 2019.

Milwaukee, WI

Cluster: Milwaukee Water Council 

Milwaukee is home to more than 150 water technology companies including Badger Meter, Kohler, A. O. Smith, Siemens, Veolia, and Pentair. In addition to water businesses, there are numerous academic institutions focused on water research in the area including the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences (the first of its kind in the nation) and the Institute for Water Business program at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. There are over 100 academic scientists and researchers focused on water solutions throughout Milwaukee and the surrounding area, with emphasis placed on stormwater management, extracting renewable energy from waste products, and mitigating and adapting to climate change. To further leverage these efforts, the Milwaukee Water Council created the Global Water Center, which houses water-related research facilities for universities, existing water-related companies, and new emerging water-related companies. 


Cluster: Michigan Water Technology Initiative

With five Great Lakes, water is a top priority in Michigan. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation launched the Michigan Water Technologies Cluster Initiative (MWTCI) to more effectively coordinate and leverage existing Michigan’s water assets. These assets include in addition to an abundance of freshwater, extensive university expertise, research and development capabilities, manufacturing expertise, and environmental leadership. Nearly every major university in Michigan is involved with the water cluster, along with the governor’s office, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and industry experts like Siemens Water Technologies, which has an office in Holland, MI. Michigan is also involved with water innovation on a global scale. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm visited with business leaders in water treatment technology in both Israel and Jordan to discuss partnerships with Michigan.  As a result, Detroit and Farmington Hills partnered with the Israeli company Miya for demonstration projects to lower energy costs by reducing water loss caused by aging infrastructure. 

Eastern U.S. Clusters 

Pittsburgh, PA

Cluster: Pittsburgh Water Economy Network

The Pittsburg area has always been a mecca for industrial innovation and today the Water Economy Network is utilizing that strong history to further water.  The region has numerous water technology companies—including 173 that provide treatment and remediation products and services and 416 that  produce devices and instruments for measurement, contro, and security—and several academic institutions with programs focused on water.  The cluster’s initiatives include supporting water innovation pilot projects, developing training, finding more efficient uses of water for energy, industry, and agriculture, and promoting green water management infrastructure.


Cluster: New England Water Innovation Network

The New England Water Innovation network, primarily housed in Massachusetts, is one of the newest clusters to dive into the water innovation space. The state, with some of the most prestigious universities in the country, is known for its innovative efforts across a variety of sectors, but only recently began making a calculated effort to work toward water innovation. Efforts include the Global Water Innovation Network (Global WIN), a new initiative founded by Massachusetts and Israel, which was created to advance the adoption of water technologies in global markets, and the Massachusetts-Israel Innovation Partnership (MIIP) water innovation challenge. The water innovation challenge rewards companies in Massachusetts and Israel for partnering together to develop and test devices to help reduce the amount of sewage sludge generated in the treatment of wastewater.

Southwest U.S. Clusters

Tucson, Arizona

Cluster: Southwest Water Cluster Initiative

The University of Arizona in Tucson is spearheading the Southwest Water Cluster. The college is home to multiple research centers dedicated to environmental sustainability and water quality.  They are collaborating with Pima County on a plan that will enable the regional wastewater reclamation department to meet regulatory requirements while protecting the county's environment and water supplies. The university is also home to a water sustainability program which aims to educate children and college students on water issues, foster a skilled workforce, and strengthen relationships across disciplines within the University of Arizona to spur more interdisciplinary solutions to real-world problems.

Houston, TX

Cluster: Surge Accelerator

Houston is home to SURGE, a program that supplies startups with a small amount of seed capital and access to substantial program benefits in return for a small amount of equity. They’ve been primarily focused on the energy industry, but recently identified that the energy industry can alleviate or exacerbate the issue of water shortage. They are taking a “holistic” viewpoint, and grouping energy and water into one sector. This initiative as caused the EPA to identify them as water innovation cluster, as they invest in both the future of water technology and energy.


Cluster: Colorado Water Innovation Cluster

Colorado has a thriving agricultural community, growing energy and oil and gas sectors, and extensive urban infrastructure. Accommodating every sector requires water, and lots of it. That’s why the Colorado Water Innovation Cluster (CWIC) has a strong focus on net zero water planning. Similar to the concept of net zero energy, net zero water aims to achieve total water neutrality. This is done by reducing water use as much as possible, maximizing water reuse and recycling on site, increasing on-site rain capture, minimizing the impacts of storm water runoff by reducing impervious areas, and generating markets for water quantity and quality trading credits similar to those used in energy industry.  The CWIC hopes to be a national leader in net zero water planning and has enlisted engineers, sustainability planners, landscape and irrigation designers, and others to work toward this goal.


Cluster: Nevada Center of Excellence in Water

In Nevada, water innovation is a collaborative effort. The Nevada System of Higher Education, the Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation, the Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development, The Southern Nevada Water Authority, and IBM have joined forces to create Centers of Excellence (COEs), which support innovation and economic development. The first COE is focused on water—specifically water resource management and big data analytics, and will utilize IBM’s cloud infrastructure systems for predictive analytics. The team hopes to position Nevada as a national leader in water resource sustainability and management.

Western/Northwest U.S. Clusters

Tacoma, WA

Cluster: Urban Waters  

The Tacoma area has a high population, large industrial, commercial, residential, and recreational areas, and 38 miles of waterfront. The goal of Urban Waters is to serve all of the sectors in Tacoma, while still maintaining the health of their water landscape. So far they have invested more than $460 million in environmental cleanup, restoration, and mitigation, opened the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Center for Urban Waters, and created four habitat mitigation sites across 22 acres of aquatic habitat. Future plans include reducing contaminants of concern in stormwater runoff by 40 to 80 percent and developing shoreline habitats along once contaminated areas.
Central and Southern California

Cluster: BlueTech

The Blue Tech Alliance, a non-profit organization focused on facilitating investment opportunities in sectors where water and wastewater technologies play a critical role, is a large part of the water innovation effort in California. The organization is actively working to bring water and wastewater technologies to the market in the energy, agriculture, urban planning, manufacturing, and health sectors. The International Center for Water Technology and the Center for Irrigation Technology at California State University in Fresno have also been leading the way in water and fluid science technology, research and development for decades. 

Think your area has what it takes to be identified as a water innovation cluster by the EPA? Interested in getting involved in a local cluster? Learn how at