Water Bar art installation features clean local liquid — for now

Posted October 9, 2017

Drinking water gets plenty of attention when it’s suddenly not available. Puerto Rico is in the news as it struggles to restore clean drinking water to its residents in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and officials from Flint, Michigan, are still facing legal backlash after the incident in 2016 where over 100,000 residents were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water.

River Falls has none of those problems, and when there’s no crisis it’s easy to forget about water. That, said Professor Greta Gaard from UW-River Falls, is when it gets neglected.

“We commodify it,” Gaard said, “consume it, and forget it. And that’s how water is being contaminated, dammed, used as waste.”

Gaard and a handful of other members from the UWRF Sustainability Faculty Fellows are aiming to change that outlook through what they’re calling a “water bar.”

The water bar began as an interactive art installation run by a couple out of Minneapolis but has since been picked up by other organizations hoping to spread the message. The setup, Gaard said, consists of three glasses of water arranged in a wooden tray. Each glass contains a water sample from different sources within the St. Croix River Watershed (municipal water, private wells, etc.). Much like they might sample from a flight of beer, participants are encouraged to taste test each glass of water and share with the people running the “bar” what they think.

“People are invited to taste the water,” Gaard said, “and describe how it tastes to them. To actually pay attention to the taste of water, which we’ve sort of assumed tastes like nothing.”

The idea of the project, Gaard continued, is to engage the public in conversations about water quality in the hopes that people will begin to see potable water as a valuable resource that is not inexhaustible. The Faculty Fellows bring the installation around to various sustainability-related events in the area, such as the Chill on the Hill concert series and an art opening at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson.

Lee Owen, a River Falls resident for 45 years, said that she worries about the effects that the pace of River Falls urban expansion will have on local drinking water as well as the environment in general. She has noticed increased trash in the Kinnickinnic River as the city encourages recreation, and she said she worries that impermeable surfaces like cement will increase runoff of chemicals into the river, particularly the excessive fertilizer her neighbors spray on their lawns.

“Everybody’s got this perfection of lawn thing that’s been encouraged … so I think they overdo chemicals on that,” Owen said.

Despite Owen’s fears, however, River Falls actually has a very good reputation in terms of its municipal groundwater. The river, to begin with, is not the source of the town’s municipal water. Tamara Wittmer, a land conservation planner at St. Croix County, said that River Falls draws from an underground aquifer, a layer of porous sandstone that slowly sponges up water trickling down from the surface. This serves as a good natural filtration system.

“Mother nature has a great way of cleaning water,” Wittmer said.

River Falls also has a testing system in place to look for any contaminants that make it past the sandstone filter, particularly nitrates and disease-causing bacteria. Nitrates, Wittmer said, are usually the result of things like storm runoff from fertilizer, animal waste and septic systems, and can be harmful in high enough dosages. The River Falls Annual Water Quality Report from 2016 shows that nitrate levels in the municipal water ranges between 0.02 and 0.05 parts per million (ppm), which is considerably below the 10 ppm limit at which it’s considered a problem.

Overall, Wittmer said, River Falls is ahead of the game when it comes to managing storm water runoff. It voluntarily began management practices in the early 90s, and regulates things such as excessive paving and the treatment of phosphorous. Hudson, by comparison, only began managing its storm water around 2016, and did so only because its rising population reached a cutoff point where the EPA requires management practices due to the Clean Water Act. Its Annual Water Quality Report from 2017 records nitrate levels at 2.4 ppm.

“I think River Falls has done a really good job of protecting the resource,” Wittmer said. “(It) is a really proactive community.”

Unlike Flint, Michigan, and Puerto Rico, River Falls is not facing a drinking water crisis. This does not mean, however, that it never could. The point of the water bar, Gaard said, is to bring the value of water to the attention of the public and to get people thinking about how their actions might impact this resource.

“It’s really, I think, a practice of mindfulness,” Gaard said. “It’s time to stop treating our water as free and inexhaustible.”