Water — how it moves, its environmental and health impacts and its cultural significance — inspired upcoming performances by the University of Iowa Dancers in Company, a 32-year-old program that serves as an outreach and educational arm of the dance department.
The performance, called Water Works, is based on water quality research and dips a toe into an emotionally fraught conversation that boiled over this past year.
A Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against drainage districts in three Iowa counties triggered controversy statewide, highlighting divisions between rural and urban dwellers and between those who argue for voluntary conservation measures rather than regulation.
A water crisis in Flint, Michigan, drew national attention to the health risks of contaminated water following reports of dangerous levels of lead found in tap water and in children’s blood streams.
“We are here to move people, to stimulate their emotions and feelings into focus and concern. To motivate them to find out more for themselves,” said University of Iowa dance assistant professor and Dancers In Company co-artistic director Michael Sakamoto.
“We welcome everyone. If debate happens, great,” he said.
Students auditioned for parts in the company last spring. In the fall, they spent time researching water issues, including speaking with university researchers and professors about urban and regional planning, water treatment plants and the health effects of environmental contamination.
Peter Weyer, associate director of the University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, collaborated with the dancers, speaking to their fall class about his work in water research. He said the idea of collaboration between dance and science appealed to him.
“It’s an opportunity to reach out to the general public and make what we do a little easier to understand,” Weyer said. “We’re deep in the science of it and it gets pretty bogged down pretty quick if you listen to the types of things we do.”
This spring, the group will perform across the state, including performances at schools in Ottumwa and Des Moines and locations in Toledo, Dubuque and Davenport. The groups will perform on the University of Iowa campus Feb. 25-27 and will return to campus in April for a symposium titled “Water Shed: A Symposium on Art, Science and Engagement.”
The dance performance includes six works themed around water, with topics ranging from climate change to the environmental impacts of Southeast Asian rituals honoring the water goddess. One piece takes inspiration from a Pablo Neruda poem, Ode to the Sea.
Jessica Anthony, Dancers in Company co-artistic director and a visiting assistant professor in modern dance, said part of the reason she was drawn to the theme was because of the prominence of water issues, ranging from flooding to drought and concerns about contamination. These issues reach a broad spectrum of people not just locally, but across the state and the globe.
The theme hit home for Brooke Robinson, a junior dance major from Grand Blanc, a town just outside of Flint, Michigan.
Robinson said her connection to Flint and the water crisis has impacted her and the way she relates to the dances.
When the city began treating its own water instead of buying water from Detroit, it failed to implement a corrosion control plan. The water ate into old lead pipes and the lead leached into the water. Children exposed to high levels of lead are at risk for behavior and learning problems and hyperactivity.
The water crisis triggered investigations at both the state and federal levels. State investigators announced that criminal or civil charges, including manslaughter, could be filed if officials are found to have been grossly negligent. The crisis also sparked lawsuits by Flint residents against state and local officials.
“Knowing what my family and friends were going through and the social and economic effects that water has is weighing on me right now,” Robinson said during a mid-February dance rehearsal.
Julianna Feracota, a University of Iowa sophomore pursuing majors in dance and accounting, said the process, including a visit to the campus water treatment facility, has given her a greater appreciation for water.
“You turn on your faucet and drink the water that comes out of it and you don’t really think about where it comes from. But it’s really important because if it’s not clean it could be dangerous for you,” she said.
For Justin Gorgone, a University of Iowa junior who grew up in Iowa City, the most powerful thing he learned during the fall session was that Iowa’s waters were once much clearer.
“I thought they were always muddy,” he said.
That also stuck out to Anthony, who grew up in Iowa as well and had always been told the muddy rivers were “just the way it is.”
“I felt a little shocked that there was this whole story and history that is being lost. If we knew that that [clear water] was the potential, would we or could we help to reclaim that and put things in place to help restore the rivers both sediment-wise and pollution-wise,” she said.
The piece that she choreographed for the production, Anatomy Of A River, is structured around the elements of a river, like the headwaters and tributaries. The focus was influenced in part by comments from Chuck Connerly, a professor and director of the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning who was involved in the collaboration.
“He said he felt like it was important for people to remember, to see the beauty in the river and connect themselves to that in order to fight for it,” she said.
The choreography was also influenced by Flint’s water crisis and Robinson’s experience, which Anthony says provides a human voice to the story.
“Those residents are having to stand up for water equality, for the right to clean water, for their voices to be heard,” she said.
In Iowa, many of the water quality problems involve contaminants associated with agriculture, like nitrogen fertilizers and manure spills. Weyer said his studies, like those testing private well water, often find issues with nitrogen. He also pointed out issues with pesticides and herbicides, arsenic and concerns about byproducts of disinfection processes used to clean up drinking water.
Although nitrogen occurs naturally, high levels can be dangerous to human health.
When nitrate concentrations in drinking water reach more than 10 milligrams per liter it can cause a potentially fatal condition known as blue baby syndrome in infants. Some studies have suggested there might be a connection between high nitrate concentrations and cancer.
High levels of nitrogen in surface water can increase algae growth, including blue-green algae, a liver toxin that has been showing up more frequently in Iowa lakes.
Large algae blooms also contribute to hypoxia, areas with low oxygen levels known as dead zones that can impact fish and other aquatic life. Nitrogen and phosphorus run off from Iowa have been connected to the growing annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which was roughly the size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined last summer.
The Des Moines Water Works filed a federal lawsuit in March 2015 against the supervisors and drainage districts in three northwestern Iowa counties — Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun. The utility argues that farm drainage tiles should be considered a point source and therefore be subject to regulation.
The utility cites its high costs to remove nitrate as a primary motive for the suit. In 2015, the Des Moines Water Works ran its nitrogen removal facility for a record-setting 177 days, with operational costs totaling $1.5 million, according to a press release.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
Water Works CEO and general manager Bill Stowe has agreed to participate in the April Water Shed symposium. Stowe said he hoped the collaboration between dancers and water quality researchers and advocates might provide a less threatening entry for people to gain an understanding of water quality issues in Iowa. It might also help if it could smooth over some of the divisions between those who support further regulation of Iowa’s waters and those who do not, he said.
“Art is uniquely positioned to break through ideologies and preconceptions. It can highlight issues in a way political debate can’t and a scientific paper can’t,” he said.
“What art can do and does do is to encourage all of us to escape that nativist response and try and seek out commonality and connectedness.”
Dot Armstrong, a University of Iowa junior and Dancers in Company dancer, said she was thrilled when she learned about the theme for this year’s production and hoped that the performance could have an impact on its audience.
“It’s really compelling to see people physicalizing these pretty abstract and scary ideas,” Armstrong, a dance and English major, said.
“If you just keep hearing that, ‘Wow, our water is so polluted,’ it detracts from what that really means. But when you see it in a different context, in a different medium, it changes your perspective. That can be really useful and moving.”
Stowe said that the utility’s lawsuit has served to bring discussion of water quality issues to the forefront, although conversations about how to resolve those issues have remained tense.
“Prior to our lawsuit, environmental issues were almost like having an abusive family member. Everyone knew but no one wanted to talk about it,” Stowe said. “I think the frequency of conversation is more healthy than the denial we’ve been in for 150 years.”
He likened current discussions about water quality to past controversies over the health effects of tobacco and the health and environmental impacts of coal, which he said started out “very ideological, very mean spirited, truculent almost.”
“I’m confident we’ll move to a more constructive view of environmental protection and cherishing of shared resources,” he said.
Weyer, of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, said students used to jump off the bridges into the water when he attended the University of Iowa in the 1970s. Folks would canoe and raft down the river.
“People used to use the river for food, transportation and recreation. Now it is used for pretty much nothing,” he said. “All that stuff is gone and you sort of use at your own risk.”
He said the river cannot be restored to its original condition, but he hoped people come away from the dance performances with a greater awareness and inspiration to start improving water quality in Iowa.
Anthony said she hoped the performances would provide a starting point for conversations.
“I hope that it creates a moment to consider the water around us, how we are a part of the watershed and the water cycle and what we are willing to stand for,” she said.
This story was originally published Feb. 18 and produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.