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The hottest bar in Minneapolis doesn't serve your favorite fancy cocktail. It has something so much better — water.

You walk in and grab a seat at the bar. "What'll it be?" the bartender asks. That's when you notice that everybody else is sipping from poured "water flights" containing tap water from around the country. It's a bit odd and unexpected, but everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. "I guess I'll have what they're having," you reply.

Water Bar is changing how people think about their tap water. It's a place where you can sample tap water from different cities and, more importantly, engage in some smart conversation about sustainability.


All images via Works Progress/Vimeo.

In 2014, pop-up artists Shanai Matteson and Colin Kloecker launched water bar at Minneapolis' Works Progress studio.

They teamed up with arts organizers, scientific researchers, environmental advocates, educators, artists, and local residents to create a space where people can come together to learn more about the way water matters in their lives and communities.

"Tap water is a great way to do this because it's such a common thing, and our relationship to water says so much about what we value," Matteson said. "Bringing people together around that ordinary daily ritual, but within a space that invites them to have fun or play or use their senses of taste and smell means thinking intentionally about the relationships to systems that so many of us take for granted, at least until there's a crisis."

Since then, they've served local tap waters to more than 30,000 people during pop-up events in Arkansas, Illinois, Minnesota, and North Carolina.


So what kind of stuff might you learn at a Water Bar pop-up?

1. There are around 54,000 public water systems in the U.S., and each one unique in its own way.

As it turns out, the water you get from your tap might be a little different from what your friend who lives halfway across the country gets. That's due to the fact that there are roughly 54,000 public water systems.

That applies to about 300 million people, or 85% of the country's population. Each one of the 54,000 systems has certain things that make it stand out from the next — ranging from water source to purification and treatment methods. This is why water from one city might taste slightly different from another. It's on these differences that Water Bar hopes to educate the public.

Water draining into one of the country's 54,000 systems.

2. While the Flint water crisis put tap water back in the news, it's far from the only place facing quality issues.

"Flint is just one place in America where people are living with water crisis — water that's been polluted or isn't being treated properly or is unaffordable to people living on limited incomes," says Matteson.

"These have always been things we talk about at the WaterBar, but now I think we see more clearly just how important it is to understand the disparities between different places and communities."

3. Just 1% of the world's freshwater is safe for drinking — and that's why we need to work to protect it.

Nearly 70% of the world is covered by water. Nearly 98% of that is salt water. Of the fresh water, just 1% is accessible and safe for consumption. More than 780 million people around the world don't have access to clean water, and nearly 2.5 billion lack proper sanitation.

"Water connects all of us, but some communities are dealing with life-threatening and immediate water disasters. I think many of us are asking what that says about our priorities as a country and how we can steer things in a more humane and just direction."

With that in mind, its worth considering not only where our own water comes from and how it's processed, but what needs to happen to keep what precious little drinkable water on Earth exists available for consumption.

4. Water is a limited resource, and we can't necessarily just "make more of it."

"One basic thing most people don't realize is that drinking water comes from a place. Water isn't manufactured in a drinking water plant, we have get it from lakes or rivers or from underground, or we have to find ways to gather rainwater or recycle wastewater," Matteson says.

"Take a few minutes to find out where your water comes from. Our lives and the places we live depend on those water sources, which is a good reason to then ask what else we can learn about those sources and what we might do individually and collectively to protect or improve them."

The team behind Water Bar is hoping to expand things a bit in their new studio too.

So far, Matteson and Kloecker have done a fine job creating a social space centered around the act of drinking and learning more about water. At their new public studio, they're hoping to develop what Matteson calls a "sustainability incubator" — that is, a space where people can use art and design to amplify important messages about the environment.

"Water connects all of us, but some communities are dealing with life-threatening and immediate water disasters. I think many of us are asking what that says about our priorities as a country, and how we can steer things in a more humane and just direction."


To learn more about Water Bar (and find out when a pop-up event is headed your way), visit its website or check out this video from Works Progress studio.

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