From tap to tapestry: Using art and creativity to protect drinking water

New artists-in-residence to engage Little Falls community to protect drinking water

Maple Park in Little Falls.
Maple Island Park in Little Falls.

LITTLE FALLS — Two artist educators, Sharon and Shirley Nordrum, were commissioned to creatively engage Little Falls residents on issues of drinking water and environmental health.

The yearlong project is initiated by the Source Water Protection Collaborative, a partnership between government agencies, nonprofits, researchers, farmers, and public health experts convened by the nonprofit Environmental Initiative.

Shirley Nordrum and Sharon Nordrum.
Shirley Nordrum and Sharon Nordrum.

The project aims to address the public engagement gap in rural communities. In 2019, the city of Little Falls was awarded the Our Town grant to thoughtfully engage residents, create a road map of priorities, and plan for the future of the community. However, like many rural communities, without this additional funding it can be a struggle to find the time, resources, and intentionality to do additional community engagement on specific issues such as drinking water, the Environmental Initiative reported in a news release about the project.

As educators and artists-in-residence, the Nordrums will support filling these gaps. By reflecting on drinking water with the community, allowing for local creative leadership, and facilitating accessible spaces, the Nordrums will support local efforts.

“Collaborative members know firsthand that communities in greater Minnesota often do not have access to public engagement resources,” said Britta Dornfeld, partnership manager with the Environmental Initiative, in a news release. “Sharon and Shirley’s work will support creating more equitable systems around drinking water, where local governments have what they need, and residents are empowered to participate in issues that affect them.”


Sharon and Shirley Nordrum are described as storytellers, sisters, Red Lake Band members, lifelong residents of rural Minnesota and advocates for those without voices and those unheard. Shirley Nordrum is one of the Bush Foundation’s 2022 fellows as well as the former Leech Lake Band environmental director. Sharon Nordrum is a multimedia artist. Her most recent collaboration was a series of Ojibwe, woodland-style floral murals for the Maajiigin Family Center.

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“We are honored to be chosen to work with the community of Little Falls. We love bringing people together by creating inviting, safe spaces for sharing ideas, and inspiring each other,” said Sharon and Shirley Nordrum in the news release. “We look forward to working with the government agencies and community to help raise awareness on the importance of protecting the water — not just for now but for future generations.”

Groundwater supplies 75% of Minnesota's drinking water, with 54% of households served by public water systems and 20% by private wells. Surface water, such as the Mississippi, supplies the rest of the drinking water. Groundwater and surface water concerns vary from place to place, even within Minnesota, which is why understanding local concerns is paramount to protecting drinking water, the Environmental Initiative reported.

Little Falls’ groundwater is currently classified as vulnerable to nitrate contamination, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and the city is located on the Mississippi upstream of the St. Cloud water intake.

Environmental Initiative convenes the Source Water Protection Collaborative, which is funded via the Minnesota Department of Health through the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment. Learn more about efforts to protect groundwater on Environmental Initiative’s website at .

“Many rural communities, ourselves included, have unique challenges and opportunities when it comes to groundwater, drinking water, and keeping the public Informed,” Little Falls City Administrator Jon Radermacher stated. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution, which is why Sharon and Shirley’s year-long conversation with Little Falls will be so important. Sharon and Shirley’s work will help us proactively connect people to their drinking water and water Resources.”

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