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The Water Bar: Serving up conversations about water supply and use

July 02, 2018

By Tyler Johnson and Ailsa McCulloch

Water resources engineering is often behind the scenes, but the Water Bar helps make sustainable water management publicly approachable

What happens when three water engineers walk into a bar? No, this isn’t a corny twist on the old joke. It’s a look at what really happens when people, including engineers, sit down to talk about one of our most precious resources—water.

The Water Bar is a real place in Northeast Minneapolis. The Water Bar began as a public art project and its initial goals were simple—to encourage people to slow down and consider their relationship with place and ecology, through the everyday act of drinking tap water together.

As water resource engineers, few people see what we do during the engineering design process. Most of our work is behind the scenes until a facility is constructed, such as a water treatment plant or a new road with storm sewer pipe and catch basins. Our work involves using numeric tools to determine design solutions to various water resource management questions, so the public is often not involved with many aspects of the design process. We protect surface water, treat drinking water, and provide wastewater solutions to both mitigate flooding issues and help to ensure that water is safe and accessible.

The Water Bar began as a public art project in Minneapolis and its initial goals were simple—to encourage people to slow down and consider their relationship with place and ecology, through the everyday act of drinking tap water together. Water flights include samples of water from three areas of Minnesota.

We are very thankful for and support organizations like the Water Bar, that make the topic of sustainable water resources management approachable to the public.

Curious about the Water Bar’s mission, one afternoon, a group of our coworkers went to the Water Bar. As we walked into the Water Bar, we first noticed the photographs that line the perimeter of the space. One photograph is of kids playing on the banks of the Mississippi River, and another is of tribe members harvesting wild rice by canoe in a lake, presumably in northern Minnesota.

We are impressed by the Water Bar’s dedication to bring a diverse set of people together to literally sit around a table and engage in important discussions about where their water comes from.

We were greeted by an employee behind the bar who set three small glasses in front of each bar stool, inviting us to sit at the bar. So far, this experience was pretty similar to walking into a brewery, but instead of a beer flight, we received flights of water. Each small glass contained water from a different area of Minnesota. The bartender served us three types of water—private well water from southeastern Minnesota, tap water from the City of Minneapolis (sourced from the Mississippi River), and tap water from the City of Cottage Grove (sourced from the Prairie du Chien and Jordan Aquifers).

Instead of the bartender asking about our days, the weather (very Minnesotan), or the local food scene, she asked each person at the bar of his or her relationship with water.

The avid angler and weekend boater with love for the lakes

“I love going up to my family’s cabin and being on the water. I spend almost every weekend up north fishing on the lake.” That’s what one of us said.

In this region—the land of 10,000 lakes—we are fortunate to generally have so many clean, swimmable, fishable lakes that we can escape to throughout the state. Within Minneapolis city limits, for example, we can choose to swim in any one of the 13 lakes. We talked about this as a group and rattled off our favorite swimming lakes around the Metro area. It was nice to sit back at the Water Bar and think more about how we use so many of the state’s lakes for recreation and to learn more about our coworkers’ favorite lakes.

As stormwater engineers, we focus on improving the quality of stormwater discharges by limiting nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment discharges to water bodies. Our work often involves helping cities to identify these water quality issues and mitigate them by designing and building features such as rain gardens to filter out contaminants. However, our designs can only go so far—if somebody drives past a rain-garden every day on his or her commute to work but doesn’t know of its function, we have lost out on an opportunity to potentially engage that person in further meaningful water conversations. When people walk into the Water Bar, these conversations start and an awareness of water that might not otherwise exist, begins.

Located on Lake Pepin, known as the birthplace of water skiing, Lake City is a popular destination for summer visitors. Stantec developed a waterfront and downtown master plan to make this area a destination for community members and visitors alike.

A suburbanite with concerns about contamination levels

While sipping water from the Prairie du Chien and Jordan Aquifers (City of Cottage Grove tap water), we talked about the difference in tastes between groundwater and surface water.

Those who were used to drinking from city water that was from a well, much preferred the groundwater because they said, they were used to the minerals in groundwater that get stripped out. One of the members in our group brought up the issue of PFC contamination in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities, that has affected quite a few cities. As the state’s drinking water quality standards have become more stringent, a few cities in the Metro area have had to shut down their drinking wells and find temporary water supply solutions for their residents. In Cottage Grove, for instance, two industrial chemicals forced the shutdown of 8 of the 11 wells in the City. As a result, Stantec worked with the City to find a temporary water supply solution. The temporary solution involved blending water from various wells and using a carbon filter to treat the PFC contaminants.

In Cottage Grove, Minnesota, complex process piping and valve assemblies were required for the treatment process to allow proper operation and future filtration.

Although issues of groundwater contamination are extremely unfortunate, one positive result is that these issues shine a public spotlight on how much of our water in this state comes from groundwater sources, and that these resources are not invulnerable to contaminants. Increasing awareness of our water supply and its vulnerability is an important step the direction of protecting these resources. 

Every drop counts

Working in water resources engineering, we are highly aware of our piece of the puzzle in enhancing water quality. But even we turn on the faucet in a kitchen sink without necessarily thinking about where that water comes from, or the steps it has gone through to become drinkable in a glass.

We are impressed by the Water Bar’s dedication to bring a diverse set of people together to literally sit around a table and engage in important discussions about where their water comes from. When you get the chance, you too, should stroll into the Water Bar and start a conversation while enjoying a flight of water.

  • Tyler Johnson

    A specialist in green infrastructure design as well as stormwater reuse design and storm sewer modeling and design, Tyler is Stantec’s green infrastructure sector lead for the US.

    Contact Tyler
  • Ailsa McCulloch

    Ailsa enjoys helping clients navigate complex funding requirements and advancing infrastructure projects through funding.

    Contact Ailsa
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