Over the last several decades, the economy of North Carolina has undergone major transitions. Once home to thriving tobacco, furniture, and textile industries, we’re seeing more and more emphasis on high tech solutions to modern problems. We’re now a state of leaders in technology, education, manufacturing, green industry, and health care. Of course we’re not alone in this transition, as many communities are experiencing a decline in manufacturing and other once strong industries. In previous posts, my colleagues have written extensively on how water plays an important part in community economic development. But what role does water play in a transitioning economy?

As it turns out, we’re not the only ones making the link between water and economic revitalization. With industry moving out, leaders in Michigan are asking how water (which remains plentiful in the region) can fuel a modern economy. Trade groups and researchers in Michigan have been talking about a “blue economy” that is centered around not only cleaning up the Great Lakes, but also building a water tech economy devoted to solving the country’s most pressing water challenges.

According to a report from the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas and the Grand Valley State University Water Resources Institute, there are five ways water and water innovation are important to the economy of the future. Although these ideas are developed for Michigan specifically, each of these points also apply to North Carolina.

1. Legacy uses: transportation, ports, shipping, commercial fishing.  

Historic and traditional uses of water will continue to be significant sources of jobs and economic growth, though they may take new shapes and forms.

2. Big water users: agriculture, manufacturing, energy, beverages.

 We already know that water is an attractive resource to companies considering moving to NC (see my colleague’s post “Turning Water Into Beer… and Jobs“).  But it’s also an important resource for existing industries. According to an investigation by the Anderson Economic Group, North Carolina in 2012 had 584,545 employees working in water-enabled industries, including the big water users mentioned above. This statistic places NC in the top 10 in the nation for water-enabled employment. There are many opportunities for growth in working with big water users, including helping them to adapt new technology to work efficiently and sustainably.

3. Growing opportunities in new sectors. 

The core focus of the Blue Economy report for Michigan is on new sectors that are emerging around water. These include water and waterfront restoration, recreation and hospitality, and real estate and private development. As a state with beautiful and ecologically diverse streams, lakes, rivers, and oceanfronts, North Carolina is also well poised to foster growth in these areas.

4. Water technology products and services. 

These include innovations around water monitoring, water cleanup and treatment, water and wastewater infrastructure design and implementation, water efficiency tools and strategies, and water ecosystem restoration. A lot of the momentum in Michigan has been around creating a cluster of companies devoted to developing innovative technology solutions for the water industry. Some even dream of creating the “Silicon Valley of Water” to attract water entrepreneurs. Could North Carolina also be a home for water entrepreneurs? We already host companies like Raleigh-based Sensus, a firm that helps utilities, cities, industrial complexes and campuses connect to data through advanced metering and other technologies. As the information and technology industry grows,  NC is uniquely poised to include and encourage water entrepreneurs in our development efforts.

5. Water education, research, and innovation centers. 

Research and innovation will certainly continue to play a huge role in supporting a blue economy, both in Michigan and here in North Carolina. NC boasts many world-class educational institutions, many of whom focus on water resources. From us here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (including the Environmental Finance Center and theWater Institute), to our colleagues at the Water Resources Research Institute at North Carolina State University, to the Nicholas Institute at Duke University (who is currently working to assess opportunities for a Blue Economy in NC), there is no shortage of creative minds working together to improve the water industry and water resources through research and education.

What other unique opportunities and resources does North Carolina offer to support a blue economy? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments section.

More resources on how water supports and influences development:


This post originally appeared on the School of Government’s Community and Economic Development in North Carolina and Beyond blog.