Reimagining Water in Little Rock, Arkansas
Day to day, most of us turn on the tap, water flows, then down the drain it goes. Out of sight, out of mind. This year, Imagine a Day Without Water took place on October 21, 2021. This annual event put on by the US Water Alliance and Value of Water Campaign asks people to consider how even one day without water would affect our lives. It would be a public health and safety crisis, as well as an economic disaster. Imagine a Day Without Water helps highlight how water is essential, invaluable, and in need of investment.
But many communities don’t have to imagine what a day without water would be like. In fact, over two million Americans lack access to adequate and affordable water and sanitation services. Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing, and five out of every 1,000 Black or Latinx households lack complete plumbing. In other areas, people are living with aging infrastructure that leaks and puts their health at risk. With climate change, more communities are facing extreme weather-related disasters that overload their water infrastructure.
Imagine a Day Without Water is a reminder that water access should be a right for all, but it’s also an opportunity for reimagining solutions to sustainable water management.
In Little Rock, Arkansas, local artists have joined forces with water professionals to reach beyond identifying the problem to create innovative solutions. Last week, Central Arkansas Water (CAW) and artist Tanya Hollifield unveiled the Forest to Faucet mural at 301 E. Capital Avenue (CAW headquarters) in Little Rock. A key feature of the mural is a water bottle filling station, which enables any community member to access clean, free water. “Vibrant downtowns are crucial for community sustainability,” said Tad Bohannon, CAW’s Chief Executive Officer. “Art and easy access to high-quality water delivered in an environmentally friendly manner support healthy downtown living. CAW remains committed to the equitable growth and redevelopment of downtown neighborhoods in the communities we serve.”
During the process of working together as part of the US Water Alliance’s Water, Arts, and Culture Accelerator, Tanya and CAW identified affordable and clean water access as a major issue for many people in Little Rock—especially unhoused community members. As a socially conscious artist, Tanya wanted her mural to not only be beautiful and inspiring, but also to directly address this problem by integrating a functioning water bottle filling station. CAW was thrilled about the idea. Over 70 community members participated in painting the mural over the course of several months, and Tanya organized handing out free, reusable water bottles provided by her neighbors, CAW, and Garver Engineering at a street food festival near the mural. For Tanya, community awareness and active participation by the public in designing water solutions was critical for her partnership with CAW. She believes that with the right process, we can build bridges between utilities and the communities they serve. “I hope public water supplies like this become more of the norm around our city,” Tanya adds.
The mural highlights multiple uses of water, a portrait of beloved Little Rock environmental and social justice activist Derek Brooks, and a participatory chalkboard. Little Rock School District art students displayed their own work imagining their relationship with water at the mural site on Imagine a Day Without Water (before being taken to the Central Arkansas Library Gallery). Learn more about the mural project here.
As an anchor institution in Little Rock, CAW was already engaging with its community. This included hosting the bi-annual Citizens Water Academy, facilitating “Forest to Faucet” educational festivals for kids, and raising awareness on stormwater pollution with Friends of Fourche Creek. Yet CAW was looking to deepen their relationships with community members and support community-driven solutions for water challenges.
Through the Water, Arts, and Culture Accelerator, CAW was able to partner with Tanya, a socially engaged artist with a history of inclusive community artwork. Tanya’s work includes murals, graphics, sculptures, drawings, and paintings. She has been a curator, creator, and organizer of solo and group shows, and she has also created and coordinated youth art projects with the Boys and Girls Club and various public artworks, including the Arkansas Peace Week’s 7th Street mural.
The Accelerator invited teams of municipal water utilities and local artists in four communities to establish partnerships and co-design solutions to their local water and climate challenges. The other participating communities included Madison, WI; Philadelphia, PA; and Tucson, AZ. Through the process of designing and implementing a collaborative project, the utilities in the Accelerator were able to deepen their understanding of how arts and cultural strategies can shape better solutions, build connections with peers in other cities, and access professional expertise and peer support to become more adept at cross-sector work.
Through the Accelerator and throughout the Alliance network, we are witnessing water leaders increasingly turning to artists and cultural leaders to help bring visibility to water issues and engage communities around solutions. “Meeting artists who impact the culture with their work and realizing that a utility can benefit from their perspective and experiences was eye-opening,” said Jane Hurley, education and outreach specialist for CAW. “Connecting in meaningful ways with various groups of people has given us a new understanding of the people we serve and some of the challenges they face in accessing the quality water we provide.”
Artists can be important partners for utilities, helping to create compelling participatory experiences to engage communities around their water resources. Artistic processes and methods can help utilities build or re-build trust with communities by approaching familiar issues in unconventional ways. Artists can also function as creative advisors, helping water leaders creatively reimagine traditional water planning and management approaches. We need multiple skill sets and approaches in order to tackle today’s complicated, interconnected water challenges and create systems for more equitable and inclusive water management.
We look forward to continuing to shine a light on these successful collaborations as we work towards a One Water future for all, where no one lives a day without water.
To learn more about the possibilities for arts-water partnerships, and to hear from Philadelphia and Tucson’s teams, tune in to our “Reimagining Climate Solutions: The Power of Arts and Culture” webinar on Wednesday, November 10 from 1:00 – 2:00 pm ET. Registration is free and can be found here.