Plentiful Water Lures Businesses to Great Lakes Region, but Is it Clean Enough?

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While the drought out west has a lot of downsides, some people in water-rich areas of the country see it as an economic opportunity. Some water advocates say the time is coming for agriculture, manufacturers, and other businesses to look to the Great Lakes and nearby regions, because they’ve got water. From WESA in Pittsburgh, The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant reports that one major issue is whether it’s clean enough.

Last fall, I visited Youngstown, Ohio,to check out Big Crickets Farms. They raise crickets in a small warehouse for restaurants and specialty foods. Owner Kevin Bachhuber and his partners moved from drought-stricken California to this old steel town because rent was cheap, and water was plentiful.

“Something we’ve learned by being here is that it’s important to have both water quality and quantity.” 

Since moving to Youngstown, the farm would periodically have die-offs, losing entire generations of crickets.

Bachhuber suspected the city water. So they started filtering it for the crickets’ drinking water.

But they were still using tap water for the humidifiers -

“The babies spend most of their time in 90 to 100 percent humidity.”

Without knowing it, Bachhuber says they were providing a highly chlorinated environment, and many crickets just couldn’t make it.

“I mean it was horrifying to watch , their back legs would stop working. And then they’d start having spasms…”

Youngstown’s chief water engineer says they do add chlorine at the end of the water treatment process - that’s standard procedure, and that levels are consistently within federal drinking water standards.

When I met with Bachhuber in February, it was at a coffee shop...

JG: “So we’re not meeting at the farm, because the farm’s…

KB: “It’s closed. The farm’s already closed.”

Bachhuber says they lost 8 million crickets and 40 million eggs. That meant $100-thousand dollars in lost contracts because of the die offs.

This might sound like the unlucky tale of a small, quirky business. But big players, like General Motors, have also had water quality issues in aging industrial cities.

Tom Wickham is spokesperson for GM in Flint, Michigan.

Within months of the city of Flint’s now infamous switch in 2014 from Detroit water to the Flint River for its water supply, Wickham says workers noticed rust on the engine parts.

“What we found was in a machining operation, in an engine plant, your chloride levels have to be lower than what the city was doing, otherwise you will have corrosion or rust on your machine parts.”

GM switched its water supply back to Detroit a full year before the city of Flint switched back.

Bryan Stubbs is hearing an increasing number stories about the need for clean water in manufacturing. He’s director of the Cleveland Water Alliance, which brings together public water systems, universities, manufacturers and other businesses.

“The group has come together, coalescing around what we call the value of water. The value of water being what is it mean in terms of economic value, and clean water, and tying clean water to gross regional product.”

Stubbs says according to a study by the Cleveland Water Alliance, which is yet to be completed, water accounts for $6 billion dollars of direct economic impact - that’s 5-to-6 percent  - of the Gross Regional Product in Northeast Ohio.

Some cities, like Milwaukee, are creating hubs for water technology businesses. Pittsburgh also started looking into this about five years ago, but that work stalled.

Stubbs says water’s time is coming as a major economic driver. It’s key to where businesses now decide to locate.

“Fifteen years ago, water was, in that relocation mix of a company, 14 or 15 on their priority level. It’s now coming up to third, fourth or fifth. So now that has a larger decision on where they’re going to locate.”

Stubbs says nearly every business, from agriculture, to beer brewing, to industrial manufacturing depend on water. They want to know if cleaning it to meet their needs will cost 3-cents per gallon, or 30-cents per gallon. And they don’t want unexpected contaminants to cause temporary shutdowns.

Stubbs sees the closing of Big Cricket Farms as a lost opportunity for a struggling city like Youngstown.

Farmer Kevin Bachhuber is still deciding where they’re going to move next. He says it feels like he’s on the front lines of some kind of water war.

“I moved to California, they ran out of water, so I came here because there’s a lot of water, and now the water is irreversibly tainted. It makes your next step feel like, what kind of water issue am i going to run into at my next place?”

Big Cricket Farms is considering a move south, to locate near other cricket farms - that have had better luck with their water.  


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