Today, regions organize their economic development efforts around a cluster model. Rather than attempting to recruit any and every company, ED professionals prefer building on the strengths of a region. It is not surprising, given the long influence of P&G, that brand building and consumer marketing is a critical cluster. And given our history of machine tool manufacturing reaching back to the 1880s, we are also a center for advanced manufacturing.

A third cluster rooted in our history that might be more of a surprise is water technology. “Confluence,” the Ohio River Water Technology Innovation cluster, has partnered with local waterworks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, universities and several corporations to make Cincinnati the base for a water technology innovation cluster.

Most Cincinnatians take for granted that they will have plenty of water to sprinkle lawns and can always turn on their kitchen faucet and get a glass of clean and safe water. Neither the quantity nor quality of our water supply is the gift of nature. Cincinnati water is, in fact, a manufactured product that is the result of almost 200 years of leadership, not just by one or two brilliant individuals, but by an urban utility that has consistently been on the cutting edge of innovation.

In 1817, Samuel Davis gained the exclusive right to “water the city.” Davis’ company initially used a horse-powered pump, but in 1824 he retired the horse in favor of a 40 horsepower steam engine salvaged from the “Vesta,” the first locally-built steamboat. With steam power, Davis could pump 1.2 million gallons a day, but almost 50 percent leaked out of the system of 12-foot-long hollowed out log pipes before reaching a customer. The breakthrough on the capacity issue came only after the City purchased the system from Davis and acquired Nicholas Longworth’s “Garden of Eden” for a massive reservoir.

Solving the capacity challenge proved relatively easy compared to solving the quality challenge. In the 1880s, scientists first postulated the germ theory of disease with the discovery of bacteria and viruses. Not everyone bought the theory. In the 1890s, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran articles headlined “Water Pollution Germ Theory Dying Out” and “Ohio River Water is as Pure as Heaven’s Snow” in a way that foreshadows modern global change deniers.

By 1907 the Cincinnati Water Works constructed a new treatment complex upstream at the Village of California. The critical element of the complex was the filtration building containing 28 rapid sand filters designed to handle the heavily silted inland river water of the Ohio. When the California complex went on line, Cincinnatians had treated water for the first time. The health impact was immediate. Whereas 1,940 Cincinnatians contracted typhoid and 239 died from the disease in 1906, by 1908 only 234 cases and 64 deaths were recorded, most of those traceable to contaminated milk supplies, raw fruits and vegetables, or use of unfiltered water.

Work on water quality took another leap forward with the creation of the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission in 1948. ORSANCO is a regional pact dedicated to eliminating the dumping of untreated human and industrial waste into the Ohio River and its tributaries in a drainage basin that spans eight states. After the 1977 carbon tetrachloride spill at Industry, W. Va., ORSANCO also created an “organics detection system” to monitor and warn of industrial spills.

In Cincinnati, the Water Works completed a new granular-activated carbon treatment plant in 1992 designed to remove organics that survive the rapid-sand filtration. The plant, named for longtime Superintendent Richard Miller, made Cincinnati the first city in the world to filter all of its water through activated carbon on a daily basis, not just during water emergencies. And this year, that technology has been supplemented with the introduction of UV filtration designed to inactivate pathogenic microorganisms, such as Cryptosporidium (crypto). Again, Cincinnati is on the cutting edge.

This long history of institutional leadership in water technology by hundreds of engineers at the Greater Cincinnati Water Works, in combination with the experience of ORSANCO and the presence of the water research division of the U.S. EPA in Clifton, makes our area the perfect incubator for innovative water technologies. Hopefully, all this activity will produce new high tech companies and jobs that will make Cincinnati a water technology innovation hub.

Dan Hurley is a historian and the Director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.