How activists are using art and science to address Michigan's water problems


Jannan Cornstalk is a water advocate and a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in northern Michigan. About four years ago, when she learned that the decaying Enbridge Line 5 gas pipeline runs along the lakebed beneath the Straits of Mackinac, she was outraged. She knew she had to do something.


Line 5 is just one of an array of recent headlines about various crises related to Michigan's water. Others include PFAS, lead contamination in Flint's drinking water, and Nestle paying $200 a year to the state to pump groundwater and selling it to the masses at a profit.


Cornstalk points to a deep belief in the sacredness of water that underpins the concern that her community has traditionally held for this resource.


“Some of these things have been prophesized by some of our native ancestors a long time ago, that water is going to be worth more than gold,” Cornstalk says.


According to a report by Allison Mack at Michigan State University, 36 percent of the country won’t be able to afford their water by 2021.


“Our water is in a state of emergency right now,” Cornstalk says.


Cornstalk founded the Water is Life festival last year in partnership with Oil and Water Don’t Mix, a coalition of nearly 100 organizations working together to protect the Great Lakes from Line 5. This year, the Aug. 31 festival is co-presented by Title Track. The nonprofit runs Clean Water Campaign, which uses storytelling and music to inspire people to create change.


Cornstalk’s Water is Life festival is one of several examples in Michigan of how activists are using a combination of art and science to keep water issues in the public consciousness, address water injustice, and collaborate on solutions.


Who has access to water and who has the power to decide are central questions at the heart of water fights across Michigan.


“We already know that someone's made a decision that some communities will drink and others will not,” says Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of We the People of Detroit, which was founded in 2008 to address issues threatening Detroiters’ access to water, including affordability, the state takeover of Detroit, and climate change.


She is a proponent of the “one water concept,” which means advocating for water on all fronts, from ensuring access and affordability in impoverished communities to protecting these resources from environmental threats.


"We've got to embrace a one water concept in terms of how we're creating our policies, how we're investing in our infrastructure, and then how we're ensuring equity and justice for low-income (communities) and communities of color,” she says.


Patrick’s comments point to the difficulties of prioritizing the many threats to water in a state that hasn’t invested much in its water infrastructure for years, leading one watchdog organization to give Michigan a D for drinking water infrastructure and a D- for stormwater. (There are recent signs of progress, such as Detroit’s plan to invest about $500 million in water infrastructure.)


The response to these issues will likely be contingent on unknown factors such as the chaotic nature of new climatic realities and infrastructure failures.


Art plays role in getting the message out

As a Native American, Cornstalk has a cultural connection to the issue. “That is our tribal fishing grounds that would be directly affected because of this pipeline,” she says. “It's a tribal sovereignty issue for us.”


Damage to the pipeline could also imperil the Great Lakes as a whole, which constitute 21% of the world’s fresh surface-water.


Art is a way to help raise awareness to different audiences. “People connect differently,” Cornstalks says. “When they connect with art, they connect emotionally.” She believes this is a key to making people care about this issue and one reason why the Water is Life Festival emphasizes musicians like Detroit’s hip-hop Aadizookaan Collective, who performed last year, and folk musician Seth Bernard, who returns this year as emcee of the event. She says that experiences of engaging with art on these topics cause people to use a different part of their brain. “It becomes more emotionally imprinted on you when that happens.”

Antonio Rafael from southwest Detroit has always had a penchant for painting water towers, with the most well-known message being "Free the Water" on a Highland Park water tower. Photo by Nick Hagen.


In Detroit, Antonio Rafael–a street artist, urban farmer and activist–is also using art to engage people, especially around access. Rafael and artist Wiliam Lucka faced felony charges and hefty fines for painting the words “Free the Water” on a water tower in Highland Park in 2014 to raise awareness around shutoffs. They eventually reached a deal with prosecutors, reducing the penalties to probation and community service.


Rafael’s art continues to engage with a wide audience, carving out a space for civic discourse that has been shrunk by economic hardship and privatization. Part of the process of reclaiming civic life is claiming public space with art and other activities.


“I think that the space for civic discourse has decreased so much in my lifetime,” Rafael says. “I think because of desperate economic circumstances, people are far less likely to take the time to research, study, and engage in social, civic issues.”


He’s working on a program with the National Wildlife Federation to help high school students connect with nature. By focusing on art as well as science and policy, Rafael believes that activists can have more of an impact. “It's beautiful,” he says. “I think when kids can personally connect, when people can feel these things, they're more likely to remember them and engage with them. Emotion is so deeply tied to memory.”


Collaborative efforts lead to creative solutions


Scientific initiatives are also shaping policy and public opinion around water justice by helping citizens connect with issues affecting the water supply. On Detroit’s East Side in the Chandler Park neighborhood, the Eastside Community Network created the Hamilton Rainscape in partnership with several foundations and the InSite Design Studio. The rainscape aims to address resident concerns about flooding in their homes and on neighborhood streets, an issue that has become more urgent as the Midwest sees bigger storms as a result of climate change.


The rainscape is a large rain garden, using landscaping and plantings to divert water from the city’s combined sewer system, which can send untreated sewage into lakes and rivers during large storms. It could also lessen the flooding created by rain events. In addition, the project has helped to beautify a vacant lot and create an outdoor classroom for Hamilton Elementary-Middle School.


Like Cornstalk’s festival in Petoskey, the Chandler Park project is also helping the community rediscover cultural connections to water. “There is an inextricable tie between black liberation and water,” says Orlando Bailey, chief development officer of Eastside Community Network, which officially opened the rainscape on June 19, or Juneteenth. He cites the spiritual “Wade in the Water” that enjoins enslaved people to wash themselves of a scent that dogs could follow to put them back into slavery, underlining the importance of understanding and controlling water for community self-determination.


In Flint, the intersection of art and science helped create a new approach to the community’s water crisis. Five years later, there is still a lack of trust among residents.


“The reality is residents are highly frustrated,” says First Lady Catrina Tillman of the First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Flint. “There's a lot of gentrification taking place, especially in the downtown area. The residents feel left out. The picture is being painted that this is a new Flint. But yet, pipes haven't been replaced and people are still complaining about different illnesses (as a result of the water switch).”


For more than four years, Tillman, her husband Pastor Ezra Tillman, and the church have “been on the frontlines of the water crisis,” she says by distributing bottled water five days a week. The bottled water all came through donations, which tapered off after a while so the church had to reduce distribution to three days.


More than a year ago, rapper, actor, and activist Jaden Smith and his nonprofit 501CTHREE reached out to the church to offer help. The church and nonprofit worked together to devise a sustainable, more environmentally conscious solution, collaborating on the concept of the Water Box water filtration system, which filters 10 gallons of water per minute. Water goes through a carbon filter and two microfilters, then it runs through a UV lamp, which kills bacteria and other biological elements that could contaminate the water.


Other than providing residents a source of clean water, the Water Box is also serving as an example to kids in Flint. Smith told Rolling Stone magazine he wanted to show young people in Flint that someone who looks like them can use science to help marginalized communities.


The cost of the Water Box, including a year of supplies and filters and funds to offset the water bill from increased water usage, is about $50,000, says Tillman. The box was donated by 501CTHREE and The Last Kilometer, the Sterling Heights-based company that engineered and built the Water Box.


Before the church was giving out two to three cases of water per person. Through the Water Box, they can give at least 5 gallons per resident (the church passed out free jugs after the Water Box came online) and residents are welcome to bring other vessels to take as much water as they can carry.

The Water Box can filter 10 gallons of water per minute. Photo courtesy of First Trinity Missionary Baptist Church.


“The last time I checked, we have replaced over 38,000 bottles of water (since March),” Tillman says.


To be sure, major challenges remain for communities. Dr. Joan Rose, a water scientist from MSU, cites the disinvestment in infrastructure of the last several decades as a major hurdle. With a decline in grant money for water projects, this forces “rate payers to pay for everything,” she says and contributes to the high cost of water for low-income communities in Great Lakes states.


However, Rose is optimistic. Monitoring technologies are improving and becoming less expensive, improving the ability to identify pollution and other problems. Groups like Oil and Water Don’t Mix have been using data collection and visualization to show the impact of a pipeline leak in the Straits of Mackinac as a means of raising awareness in an attempt to influence policy. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s recent lawsuit to decommission Line 5 shows that these efforts may be having an effect.


“We've got just great new technologies,” Rose says, “remote sensing and all kinds of sensors, big data sets and it ranges everything from climatology and space and water on Mars to our groundwater.”


Yet, these improvements won’t implement themselves and protecting water will require public engagement. For concerned citizens, there is a need to, as Patrick says, “constantly raise people's consciousness around inequities and injustices.”


Model D managing editor Dorothy Hernandez contributed to this report.


This piece is part of a STEM series and is supported by the Michigan Science Center. Learn more about the future of water through DEPTH, an exhibit running at the Michigan Science Center, until Aug. 17.

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Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.