Home to the future Water Innovation Center? The Zorn Avenue pumping station.

Can Louisville become the water capital of the world?

As grandiose as that may sound, an eclectic group of six speakers at the Idea Festival Water Conference yesterday believe it not only possible, but already under way.

First up was Greg Heitzman, the CEO and President of the city-owned Louisville Water Company, who shared his vision of creating a Water Innovation Center costing upwards of $15 million at the Zorn Avenue Pumping Station site.

Not to be confused with the Louisville Water Company Museum already planned for the site, the Water Innovation Center is a much more ambitious project with hopes of becoming a center of research and problem-solving for water issues around the globe.

How realistic is this? Apparently much more realistic than one might think. Louisville is literally swimming in water with a potential capacity of 350 to 400 billion gallons per day in the Ohio River aquifer so acts as a perfect test lab.

More importantly, the Louisville Water Company has a long history of innovation dating back almost 150 years and has pioneered multiple advances in water filtration technology. From chlorine filtration in the late 1800s to the world’s first riverbank filtration project in the late 1990s, creative solutions to dirty water have been a hallmark of the company that gives the city the 99.999-percent pure water that we drink today.

While the quest for oil gets far more news coverage, the next great global game may play out over water, a commodity necessary for almost every product produced in the world. Louisville owns a long history of water innovation. Can Louisville leverage this into a global-leading Water Innovation Center? Greg Heitzman certainly thinks so.

Next up was Gregory Luhan, the Associate Dean for Research at University of Kentucky-College of Design and an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture, who along with one of his students explained two possible visions for physically transforming the land at the Zorn Avenue Pumping Station into the envisioned Water Innovation Center emphasizing Louisville’s historical relationship with the Ohio River.

In addition to a research center, these bold plans would also add a signature architectural gem to the city landscape.

Falls of the Ohio before 1927.

If Dean Luhan wants to transform the Zorn the Pumping Station, civil engineer Steven Greseth wants to transform the appearance of the entire city and region.

Since 1927, the McAlpine Locks and Dam has afforded Ohio River traffic safe passage around the now-hidden Falls of the Ohio. Greseth wants to un-do this, move the dam upriver and re-expose the natural beauty of the Falls, which is apparently the seventh largest waterfall in the world in terms of total width and flow.

His plan includes the creation of a national park at the Falls in conjunction with the re-creation of the Buffalo Trace that stretched through Kentucky, crossed the Falls and extended into the central great plains, both of which could be designated as an UNESCO World Heritage site. While this would definitely make Louisville a more beautiful place, his primary argument is an economic one as he believes it would trigger a massive influx of tourism to the tune of 8.4 million visitors with an economic impact of $480 million creating 22,000 local jobs.

Boston had its Big Dig to reclaim its waterfront. Could a Big Flood help Louisville re-claim its Falls?

Keynote Speaker Gill Holland was a whirling dervish of facts, figures and suggestions about water on a global scale.

The Louisville-based film maker and co-producer of “Flow: For the Love of Water”, a documentary on the privatization of the water industry, explained how the abundance of this natural resource in Louisville is perhaps why this community wastes so much of it while other areas of the globe struggle to find enough to survive.

Did you know that the cup of tea you just drank actually took nine gallons of water to produce? Do you know what your water footprint is? Can Louisville become an economic boom town in the future due to its supply of fresh, potable water?

With incentives for users, greener development regulations and continued research and innovation from the Louisville Water Company, Louisville might well be poised to become a 21st century water boom town and become a leader in water conservation.

While the morning sessions focused on the economic and technological aspects of the water industry, the afternoon sessions focused on Water Conference presenter Water Step, a Louisville-based humanitarian organization whose mission is to save lives by providing clean water around the world.

If Howard Stern is the shock jock of talk radio, Dr. Bill Smock is the shock doc of medical missionary work. Dr. Smock’s presentation was entirely absent of figures as he showed a collection of photos of patients he’s treated in Africa suffering horrendous medical conditions due to an absence of clean water. Based on his medical missionary work experience, he realized that almost half of the most common medical conditions he encountered were water-borne illnesses.

Volunteers assemble the M-100 portable Chlorine Generator yesterday at the IF Water Conference.

Coupled with the fact that every medical mission needs clean water, he decided to partner with Water Step and is now the Medical Director of the organization. In addition to medical care, his mission trips now include distribution of WaterStep’s M-100 portable Chlorine Generator that can provide 10,000 gallons of clean water in 24 hours.

Next up was Iraqi native and JCTC student Megan Casey, who shared her childhood experiences of her family’s struggle to find enough water to survive.

Her mother would leave home before dawn and return late in the day with whatever water she could find. Water was so scarce that it wasn’t even boiled for fear of losing precious drops to evaporation. Women like Casey’s mother might walk miles and miles with five-gallon buckets on their heads weighing more than 40 pounds. Casey humanized a problem that is otherwise thousands of miles away and alien to the average American water drinker.

Closing out the day was Water Step Founder and CEO Mark Hogg, who implored people to get involved. Insignificance is an oft-used excuse for failure to participate. Hogg says hogwash and everyone can make a difference.

Hogg is neither a water expert nor engineer, yet he has created an organization that has helped save thousands of lives around the world from right here in Louisville. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they make the effort. They just need to get up off of the couch to do something.

Will Louisville become the water capital of the world? That remains to be seen, but the Louisville Water Company and Water Step are doing all they can to see that it happens.

Louisville was founded because of the Ohio River, and water just may play a significant role in its next evolutionary step as a city.

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Albrecht Stahmer
Albrecht is your typical Paraguayan-born German-American raised primarily in good ol' Louisville after moving here at the age of six. He currently calls Singapore home and has also lived and worked in New York, Miami, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Tokyo, but is proud to call the River City his hometown. He writes on things he sees in his travels and how they relate to Louisville. In his spare time, he works as a management consultant and scours the globe in pursuit of the world's best bourbon bars.

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