In an Era of Scarcity, Water is Now a Major Economic Driver
In a world facing growing problems with water scarcity, the Great Lakes region could be poised to draw businesses—big and small—from other parts of the country. But despite the region’s vast quantities of freshwater, water quality can’t always be taken for granted.
One example: Big Crickets Farms, which raises edible crickets for restaurants and specialty foods producers. Owner Kevin Bachhuber moved his business from drought-stricken California to Youngstown, Ohio in part because there was plenty of water. But after moving to Youngstown, he noticed the farm would periodically lose entire generations of crickets.
Bachhuber suspected the city water. So they started filtering the crickets’ drinking water. But they still relied on tap water for the humidifiers, which were used to create the high-humidity conditions that baby crickets require.
Without knowing it, Bachhuber says they were providing a chlorinated environment, and many crickets just couldn’t make it.
“I mean, it was horrifying to watch,” Bachhuber says. “Their back legs would stop working. And then they’d start having spasms.”
Bachhuber ultimately lost 8 million crickets, 40 million eggs and $100,000 in contracts. He decided to close the farm. Youngstown’s chief water engineer says it’s standard procedure to add chlorine at the end of the water treatment process. And levels are consistently within federal drinking water standards.
Small businesses like Bachhuber’s aren’t the only ones experiencing problems with water quality. For example, General Motors says some of its operations were affected by the city of Flint switching its water supply from Detroit water to the Flint River in 2014. Within months of the switch, GM says workers started noticing rust on 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,” says Tom Wickham, a spokesperson for GM in Flint. “Otherwise you will have corrosion or rust on your machine parts.”
In fact, GM switched its water supply back to Detroit water a full year before the city of Flint followed suit.
It’s a familiar concern for business owners, according to Bryan Stubbs, director of the Cleveland Water Alliance. He says he’s hearing an increasing number of stories about the need for clean water in manufacturing.
“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 [impact] on where they’re going to locate.”
According to an ongoing study by the Cleveland Water Alliance, water accounts for $6 billion of direct economic impact. That’s roughly 5 percent of the gross regional product in northeast Ohio.
Some cities, like Milwaukee, are even creating hubs for water technology businesses. Pittsburgh explored a similar idea about five years ago, but that work stalled.
Stubbs says water’s time is coming as a major economic driver. He says nearly every business—from agriculture to beer brewing to industrial manufacturing—depends on water. Business owners 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. Meanwhile, cricket farmer Kevin Bachhuber is still deciding where they’re going to move next. They’re considering a move south, where other cricket farms have had better luck with the water. But 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?’”
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