University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Making the Invisible Visible

To think more clearly about our water systems, we may first need to notice them.

Christine Baeumler and Lindsay Schwantes in front of an interactive sculpture at the Capitol Region Watershed District offices. Created by the St. Paul based firm Kidzibitz, the sculpture helps users visualize the flow of rainwater in an urban area.
Photo Credit: Ackerman + Gruber

One of the challenges of protecting our water infrastructure is that the work needed in this area is often out of sight, and hence, out of mind. 

For instance, the mission of the Capitol Region Watershed District (CRWD) is to protect, manage, and improve the water in a 40-square-mile area that includes the cities of St. Paul, Falcon Heights, Roseville, and Lauderdale. It serves a crucial role in protecting the area’s lakes, rivers, wetlands, streams, and stormwater—and yet, its work is often invisible to the general public. 

That changed in 2010, when longtime public artist Seitu Jones (B.S. ’05, M.L.S. ’07), who was a CRWD board member, urged the organization to partner with Public Art St. Paul—a nonprofit organization that uses the arts to elevate the work of government. Jones hoped to create meaningful associations between people and the infrastructure that connects us to bodies of water. (Jones was also selected to create public art for the recent renovation of Pillsbury Hall on campus.) 

“The arts have been a way for us to make a lot of the work we do, which is often invisible and underground, more relevant and visible,” says Lindsay Schwantes (B.S. ’12), who is CRWD’s community engagement program manager. 

CRWD appointed U of M Professor of Art Christine Baeumler as its Watershed Artist in Residence in 2010, a role that included shadowing staff for an entire summer to better understand the organization’s work. Today, she consults with the organization on numerous Ackerman + Gruber issues, including on how to translate data into comprehensive and aesthetic experiences, and how to create aesthetic interfaces between nature and the built environment that spark connections with the public. 

“It’s a little bit hard to care about the water that goes down the drain, but when you realize that same water drains into Lake Como or the Mississippi, people can really connect emotionally with those places and the species that inhabit them,” says Baeumler. 

When CRWD implemented green infrastructure along the Green Line light rail system to control flooding, manage runoff, and improve water quality, Baeumler connected CRWD with a local metal worker to create artistic coverings for the stormwater planters and catch basins to make them more beautiful and therefore noticeable. And when CRWD moved into a new building in 2018, the organization commissioned U of M art students to make an iron cast of the Mississippi River Watershed. Baeumler also collaborated on an interactive cistern outside the facility, which redirects water into a root system that goes into a pond. 

Credit: Ryan Companies
Drainage pipes and iron-enhanced sand beneath the rain gardens and native plant landscaping around the central water feature all help capture and clean water before it flows to the Mississippi River.
Credit: Ryan Companies

“As humans, water is so essential to who we are and to the composition of our bodies and our health,” says Baeumler. “I think that people can really take action when they feel that deep sense of concern and affection for the environment around them.”

Sidebar: Highland Bridge Beauty

When the Capitol Region Watershed District was working on plans for the stormwater management system at Highland Bridge, a residential and commercial development located on the site of the former Ford Motor Company’s St. Paul plant on the Mississippi River, they decided to treat it as a resource, not a waste product.

The result feels like a nature reserve, with a creek, curved walking paths, and kayakers (artist's rendering above). While stormwater from the Ford plant ran directly into the river, plans now include a filtration system that will clean 64 million gallons of water a year. 

“We knew it would be the marquee public feature in the project,” Tony Barranco (B.S.B. ’96), president of the North Region for Ryan Companies, the site’s master developer, told the Star Tribune newspaper. “But now that it’s built, we said ‘Holy buckets. This is unbelievable.’”

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