Why Lake Erie is so important to Northeast Ohio’s economy

Cleveland sits on one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world, which translates to affordable, accessible drinking water for 12 million people, more than 6,000 jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact. I and many others believe this can be leveraged to impact billions more by applying innovation and technology to create the world’s first “Smart Lake.”

Cleveland lost the race to become the first “Smart City” in the U.S., but with our proximity to Lake Erie and our robust water industry, we are poised to create the first “smart” and connected Great Lake.

Water is the last big frontier that hasn’t gone through a huge digital transformation, similar to the communications and electronics industries. Today, I know where my daughter is 24/7 anywhere in the world through the power of smart phones.

But I know very little in real time about Lake Erie’s water quality or the quality of the water that drains into it. From high-tech monitoring of our water infrastructure to integrated management of rivers and streams that flow into Lake Erie, it’s an untapped market worth billions. That’s why we should all care about the health and future of our water — especially the business leaders of our community.

This year, the 50th anniversary of the burning of the Cuyahoga River, is a good time to remind everyone of the importance of our freshwater, because as our history shows, its neglect can lead to disastrous results.

We saw that in Toledo more recently with an algal bloom outbreak several years ago in which the toxins in Lake Erie made water undrinkable for nearly half a million people. Experts say if left unchecked, future algal bloom outbreaks will have a negative economic impact of $1.5 billion to our local utilities alone, according to the International Joint Commission. The impact to tourism, recreation, the workforce and business attraction will be significantly more.

We don’t want to wait until that happens on Cleveland’s lakeshore to jolt us into action. In Cuyahoga County alone, there are 6,000 jobs in the “Blue Economy,’’ a term used to describe jobs related to water. Water is one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy in Cuyahoga County, according to a recent report by the Ohio Aerospace Institute.

Nearly 1,000 new water cluster jobs (929) were created in Cuyahoga County from 2013-16, according to the report. This growth was significantly more than in aerospace, advanced manufacturing, energy and biohealth.

Erie Hack, a marquee program of the Cleveland Water Alliance, an organization I lead, invited the best and brightest minds in our region to pitch their ideas to create a Smart Lake. We recently named three winning teams, including two from Cleveland, that collectively received more than $100,000 in cash and support services. The next step is to support these winners while they work to usher their products into the market and create both solutions and jobs.

We know a Smart Lake is coming. The question is: Do we want to be the first to build it?

Bryan Stubbs is president and executive director at Cleveland Water Alliance