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Water emerged as one of the most compelling issues for Michigan's economic future during a five-city "Blue Economy Tour" led by the University Research Corridor (URC) – an alliance of Michigan's three leading research institutions, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

Tour stops were made at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Michigan Technological University in Houghton, in Traverse City with Northwestern Michigan College, in Macomb County with Macomb Community College and at Grand Valley State University's Water Institute in Muskegon. In each of these places, researchers, government officials, nonprofit executives and business leaders agreed: Maintain and protect our water resources and Michigan will flourish; don't, and Michigan as well as the Great Lakes region will risk losing a major competitive advantage.

Many people overlook its significance, but water is fundamental to our economy. Michigan ranks fourth in the nation in the percentage of jobs (4.1 percent) associated with industries related to water, such as wastewater treatment, manufacturing and engineering. That's 718,700 jobs, according to the "Innovating for the Blue Economy" report commissioned by the URC from Anderson Economic Group.

Water is so instrumental to our economic future that the three URC universities received nearly $300 million for water-related research and outreach between 2009 and 2013 from governments, private companies, foundations and other sources. That's nearly as much as the amount received by the universities ($303 million) for advanced automotive research from 2006-11.

The reason is simple: Research on water-related issues gives existing companies, entrepreneurs and early stage investors access to cutting-edge technologies and information, allowing for growth in new markets and companies throughout the state, the nation and globally.

Michigan is well-positioned to do the water research needed now and in the future. The Blue Economy report also found that the three URC universities each year produce more than 3,400 graduates prepared to analyze and find solutions to water-related issues in academia, government and the private sector. Nearly 40 percent of those graduates earned advanced degrees.

Michigan is quickly becoming a regional leader on water issues. Michigan's Office of the Great Lakes has been deeply invested in the URC's Blue Economy Tour, and is currently developing a water strategy plan to be released in 2015 that will make Michigan's voice in issues that matter on the Great Lakes loud and clear, both in the state and around the basin.

Similarly, the URC has been hard at work developing the alliances needed to move the needle on collaborations in water-related research.

Doing so positions our state to lead the nation in the Blue Economy that is upon us.

Jeff Mason is executive director of the University Research Corridor. Jon Allan is director of the Office of the Great Lakes.

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