Milwaukee has a complex relationship with water. Along with its location on the shore of Lake Michigan, three major rivers flow through the city. Historically, the city has relied upon these water sources to drive industry, including leather tanning, food processing, and, of course, beer brewing. Since the decline of its heavy industry starting in the mid-20th century, the city has grappled with how to remediate its water system. Now a group of artists have a proposal to help bring the public into the conversation about the city’s water use.
Currently all rain water and sewage in the city is filtered through the Jones Island water treatment facility on the lakefront before being returned to the lake. During typical rain events, this system works to keep polluted water out of the lake, but when extreme rainfall hits the city, the system can quickly become overwhelmed, resulting in sewage being discharged directly into the lake, which is also where all of the city’s drinking water is drawn from.
WaterMarks is an initiative to help educate and engage with the public surrounding water issues. Launched by City as Living Laboratory: Sustainability Made Tangible through the Arts (CALL), the program hopes to install physical markers throughout the city to inform the public about major water events and educate them on the water systems that are often right under their feet. WaterMarks intends to “create a city scaled 3-D diagram of the multi-faceted manifestations of water” in the form of large-scale lettered markers, like dropped map pins throughout the city. Each marker would correspond with a different water system. Residents will also be able to access a WaterMarks app, which will supplement the markers and give information about additional public programming associated with the project.
The first phase of the project proposes to engage with the Jones Island smoke stack, which sits in a highly visible space in Milwaukee’s Inner Harbor. WaterMarks’ plan is to illuminate the stack in order to signify the state of the water system. Blue will indicate the system is functioning at normal levels, while red will be shown ahead of impending heavy rains to encourage residents to think about their water usage and prepare.
WaterMarks has been developed over the last three years with the support of Marquette University and a recent grant from Institute of Museum and Library Services. That grant will go towards initial prototyping and developing programming for the project with the help of Haggerty Museum at Marquette. The projected budget of $3.6 million was arrived at through conversations with the public as well as the Development Department, Department of Public Works and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewer Department, who helped identify the city’s needs.