Cleveland hoping to make waves in clean water tech industry


A group of industry leaders are flipping the script on Cleveland’s cliched “burning river” and “mistake on the lake” narratives. They’re angling to make Cleveland the capital of clean water, the place where the worst water pollution problems facing the country are solved.

Last year, Cleveland Water Alliance (CWA) won a $600,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration grant that it will use to test innovations in multiple technologies, such as finding lead pipes underground. 

The federal grant was matched by another $600,000 from the Cleveland Innovation Project, an alliance of The Greater Cleveland Partnership, The Fund For Our Economic Future, The Cleveland Foundation, JumpStart and Team NEO. 

“Find me something of greater need,” said Bryan Stubbs, executive director of CWA, a nonprofit founded in 2014 to advance the area’s clean water tech industries. “It’s going to be enormously expensive to [replace lead pipes]. If Cleveland becomes known for bringing those solutions to the market, innovators will want to come here for the next thing, like PFAS.” 

Corroding lead pipes are a big problem because they are everywhere in public water systems, schools and homes, and lead is a soft metal that corrodes and is ingested by drinking tap water. Lead has been shown to cause major child developmental issues that affect the brain, heart, bones, kidneys and nervous system. There are no safe levels once it is in the bloodstream. 

PFAS or polyfluoroalkyl, are synthetic substances that are the byproduct of industry — from coatings that make clothes stain resistant or cookware scratch resistant — that scientists have detected in water. Studies on animals have shown impacts to their organs, like their liver, from exposure to PFAS. 

Although Cleveland has seen its share of big economic development ideas, many of which have been slow to come to fruition over the years, Stubbs is confident of the city’s ability to make waves in the up-and-coming water tech industry. He cites our region’s deep bench in clean water tech, with 16,000 people employed in the sector, according to an Ohio Aerospace Institute report. CWA recently announced two innovation challenges to further their goals.

Clean water is a major focus of the Biden Administration, including a $110 billion budget item in the proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.

Ed Verhamme (Limnotech) installs soil moisture sensors at Old Woman Creek testbed. Photo courtesy CWA.

Ed Verhamme (Limnotech) installs soil moisture sensors at Old Woman Creek testbed. Photo courtesy CWA.

Mapping hidden lead pipes

CWA’s plan is to build a “pipe farm” that will simulate real-world conditions with a large central pipe or “water main” and smaller-pipe connections stemming off of it buried under layers of typical silt, clay and bedrock. The farm is in partnership with municipal utility Cleveland Water, and will provide a space for researchers to locate lead pipes under Cleveland and cities like  Flint, Michigan, where older, municipal water systems threaten the drinking water of millions of residents.

Cleveland Water estimated in 2017 that 79% of the city’s pipes that carry drinking water are made from lead. Buildings built before 1954 are also likely to have lead service lines. While exposure in older homes to lead paint is more common, old pipes also contribute to lead poisoning in children. And while regulations like the 1974 federal Safe Water Drinking Act are intended to protect against lead exposure, about 12% of Cleveland children under six who were screened for lead in 2016 and 2017 had a level of the toxin in their blood that required action.

The catch is, most cities have no idea where their lead pipes are located and have little means of “mapping” them, Stubbs said. CWA and Cleveland Water want to fund a researcher who can locate lead pipes buried below the surface of cities without breaking ground to find them. While Stubbs admits that he doesn’t know what technology solution can detect a pipe’s location without having to dig, he’s hopeful the lab will provide the answers — and provide time and cost savings. 

With the $1.2 million in grants and with CWA and Cleveland Water backing the venture with their own funds, Stubbs expects to have a trial of the most promising technologies going this summer. CWA expects to have a second trial up and running this year with industry leader Moen, to detect contaminants like PFAS. As if that weren’t enough, CWA has a third study going with partners, including Ohio Sea Grant, to place monitors that detect contaminants as they flow into rivers and streams that are tributaries to Lake Erie.

Micro Buoy and Extreme Comms (1st and 2nd place Erie Hack 2017) install their innovative water quality sensors and telemetry at a water quality monitoring buoy near Cedar Point as part of the Internet of H2O challenge. Photo courtesy CWA.

Micro Buoy and Extreme Comms (1st and 2nd place Erie Hack 2017) install their innovative water quality sensors and telemetry at a water quality monitoring buoy near Cedar Point as part of the Internet of H2O challenge. Photo courtesy CWA.

Why Cleveland is solving the world’s problem

For decades, the federal government has lowered its share of investment in water infrastructure. The U.S. EPA estimates that nearly $300 billion in infrastructure investments will be needed over the next 20 years to ensure safe drinking water and clean waterways in our nation’s communities. The challenge demands new pipes, treatment options for PFAS and other environmental factors, like combined sewer overflows that cause human waste to mix with rainwater that flows into Lake Erie.

It has created opportunities for private firms, organizations like CWA and utilities like Cleveland Water to form public-private partnerships to solve big problems like lead. For a sense of scale of just the lead contamination issue, the Biden Administration has requested a $45 billion allocation in its American Jobs Plan to replace 100% of the lead pipes underground in American cities. The plan calls for another $10 billion to monitor and remediate PFAS in drinking water. 

Cleveland ranks among cities vying in the clean water industry, Stubbs said, because it has solved some very challenging water pollution problems from industrial waste, which, in turn, led to growth in jobs and technological know-how.

“This goes back to our history with water and the last time the [Cuyahoga] river caught on fire and the lake [Erie] being declared dead,” he said, referring to the 1969 blaze on the river that put Cleveland in the spotlight for environmental degradation. “What was birthed out of that turned into hundreds of existing companies in [clean water tech]. We have that deep knowledge in the water economy.” 

Clean water coming up

Moen may be the biggest of the private, water-related companies that call Northeast Ohio home. The North Olmsted-based subsidiary of Fortune Brands employs 2,223 people worldwide and recorded annual revenue of $2.5 billion from the manufacture of consumer products like faucets, shower heads and water filters. Moen Vice President of Product Development and a CWA Board member, Michael Schum, confirmed that the company is partnering with CWA in building the second of four test beds sometime this year. 

The second test bed is focused on improving the digital sensors and controls on consumer products, like Moen’s “smart” faucet devices that can do things like set temperature with voice activation and app technology. The laboratory can take on challenges like detecting and alerting people when a leak — or when lead — is present in the plumbing line of their home, Schum said.

“There’s a business opportunity there,” Schum said. “If water is marginal, we want to and will provide filtering products.”

“We are working on this challenge with CWA to have access to innovative ideas,” he added. “We can commercialize it, but we also need access to talent.”

The talent will initially be drawn from other places, Stubbs said, but he plans to build a pipeline of talent with local colleges and universities. 

“We’re working on the establishment of a water-centric research consortium,” he said, “whose sole job could be to apply for federal dollars and build capacity.” 

He is also planning on attracting private investors to bring more research and development dollars here, he said. “I will be kicking off a $5 million seed fund [to raise money for clean water tech] with a Great Lakes focus. These will be minority stakes in early stage companies.”

It may still be a long shot, but if that becomes Cleveland’s claim to fame, it will be a fitting tribute to its 50-year journey from burning river to a city aspiring to rebuild around a cleaner environment. 

“The lead service line detection could be a home run,” Stubbs said. “We should become a beacon, the place where one goes to accelerate market-based needs.”

Jumpstart Inc. is an underwriter of The Land, helping to support coverage of urban entrepreneurship.

Marc Lefkowitz is a journalist and sustainability expert who lives in Cleveland Heights.

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