Water Is All We Have
by Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson, Works Progress Studio
began, as most of our projects do, with a simple question: Can we drink the Mississippi River?
The answer, of course, is that many of us already do. In Minneapolis, where we live, tap water is sourced from the Mississippi River, a fact not widely known. So one could say that we drink the river every day, with the aid of some state of the art water treatment. Our health and the health of the Mississippi are intimately linked.
Because we regularly collaborate with science professionals, simple questions like this often lead to really complex conversations and projects. In this case, a question about drinking the river led to our current obsession with tap water as an ecological, emotional, civic, and socio-economic moment - a common experience that opens space for conversation about our relationships with water and water systems.
Tap water is one way that we literally ingest our place in the watershed. This was the spark that led to Water Bar.
As we started to develop the project, we sat down with Lark Weller, a National Park Ranger and water quality educator. We talked about all the things (threats manmade and otherwise) that should discourage one from drinking raw water from the Mississippi River, and we learned more about the ways that Lark and other educators and advocates engage people in thinking about how they can contribute positively to water quality.
We were curious what people thought of their own tap water, and if anyone knew of a map of metro drinking water sources, so Shanai posed these questions on Facebook. This led to an exchange with glacial geologist Carrie Jennings
(also of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) who introduced us to Met Council Environmental Scientist Lanya Ross. It turns out that Lanya is both a drinking water expert, and a really easy person to talk with. Generously, she agreed to meet a group of us for a tap water tasting, and over shots of Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and other local tap waters, she shared some of what she knows about water treatment systems.
We learned that tap water is a really complex undertaking, and that it’s surprisingly easy to find information about tap water if you know where to look. The problem is, most people don’t know where to look, or they may not be compelled to seek that information. And if they do, they may not easily see how it connects to their own experience.
Water Bar was created as a way to bring those different threads of conversation together, and to introduce new public audiences to people like Lark, Carrie and Lanya.
The first iteration of Water Bar was a temporary installation at Twin Cities Public Television. Carrie Jennings, Lark Weller, Pat Nunnally
(River Life) and other water resource experts and advocates were on hand to serve eight local tap waters to an audience of about 150 people, who were there to watch a series of short films that we’d made about people and their connections to the Mississippi River.
We created a simple “flight tray” and tasting card that would invite people to share notes about the waters they were sampling.What you notice right away at Water Bar is that these different municipal waters, all treated to the same public health standards, taste very different. What you experience when you compare them is the confluence of individual water sources, their treatment processes, and your individual taste preferences, often conditioned by whatever water you drink most often. The treatment process of each water is a direct reflection of the water source and its quality. When Minneapolis starts with Mississippi River water, it has to treat for everything that has washed into the river upstream of the city. This results in a very different treatment process from places that draw their water from an underground source, which have a different set of vulnerabilities.
One person remarked that although there was a bar on site serving beer and wine, Water Bar was a more popular destination. The conversations that began as a result of Water Bar were layered with personal experience, expert knowledge, stories pulled from the headlines, and emotional reactions. In short: A good example of how most of us experience connections to our environment.
We’re fortunate to live in a place where, for the most part, water flows to our taps uninterrupted, clean, and accessible. We have many people to thank for this, as well as many challenges ahead that will need to be addressed if we are to have safe and accessible drinking water in the future.
By gathering people around tap water, and offering an opportunity for the exchange of information and experience, we opened a conversation about how best to protect our water sources, and where our waters fit in the regional, national, and global trends of things like climate change, water scarcity, privatization of water, and pollution.
We continue to experiment with Water Bar locally, as well as at the national exhibition State of the Art
currently on view at Crystal Bridges Museum
in Arkansas. In the process, we’re finding new ways of engaging our community around one of the most important resources we share.