The Water Wagon: A cool lesson in sustainability

Posted on Thursday, September 4, 2014 - 10:44am

Children get water from the Water Wagon

To book the Water Wagon or see scheduled events, head to our  Water Wagon web page.

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It’s a warm, sticky July evening as families gather in the Villager Mall parking lot for the Urban League’s Eat, Play, Art community event. There’s plenty of music, food and dancing, but eventually, most in the crowd make their way to a quiet spot in front of the library in search of one thing – water. Madison Water Utility’s “Water Wagon,” tucked away by the bike rack, is the only source of drinking water at the event. And it’s free.
 
“For many of our attendees, price can be an issue. The Water Wagon provides a first class water experience without cost,” says Hedi Rudd, development and events manager at the Urban League of Greater Madison. “…it is the most community-like way of providing water to our attendees.”
student gives thumbs up after refilling water bottleBy the end of 2014, the Water Wagon will have served up free Madison water to thousands of people all across the city – from school fun runs and neighborhood get-togethers to major summer events like Paddle and Portage and Ride the Drive.
 
“People want access to water. They like that they don’t have to go buy some bottled water,” says Madison Water Utility project engineer Kelly Miess. “A lot more people are carrying reusable bottles, and they can just fill up. It’s cold. It’s easy.”

But getting to this point wasn’t easy. Miess says in 2011, Madison Water Utility was looking to buy a portable bottle-refilling station and bubbler that would showcase Madison tap water as a sustainable, high-quality alternative to bottled water while at the same time providing a real community service. The only problem was nothing like that really existed.
 
“There just wasn’t really anything that was going to meet our needs, what we wanted. At some point we decided, ‘Okay, we just need to do it on our own.’”

If you build it ...
 
Miess was assigned to pull together a team at Madison Water Utility and build a Water Wagon.
 
“It was pretty nebulous at first. We had several brainstorming sessions and talked about how we might move it, how we might hook it up to water.” she recalls. “One of the first big decisions we made was not to have a tank (of water). We wanted it to be easy for one or maybe two people to move. It would be light and mobile.”
 
The team also got help from the Illinois section of the American Water Works Association, which had built a bottle-refilling station for its member water utilities.  
 
“They spent a lot of time with us, giving us some of their lessons learned. One of the things was that the water got too warm in the sun in the summertime, so we incorporated was a heat exchanger into our design to cool the water. Theirs was also much heavier; it was made out of fiberglass. So we really gained from their experience.”
 
By the fall of 2011, the design for Madison’s one and only Water Wagon started taking shape. It would have bright, bold graphics and large tap handles meant to look like Madison water towers. It would have bubblers in addition to the bottle refilling stations and a lower side that would be wheelchair accessible. And it would be light enough to pull behind a small pickup truck.

design sketch and fabrication
 
Now all Madison Water Utility needed to do was actually build it. And that would take months of work from the utility’s experienced welder Mike Draper.
 
“He built it from pretty much scratch,” Miess says. “He bought some axels and some wheels and a few prefabricated parts. Other than that, he fabricated the whole frame and the whole Water Wagon. He made it happen.”

"People want water"

By the spring of 2012 the Water Wagon was finally finished, but there wasn’t a lot of interest. Organizers of some of Madison’s larger events already had contracts with beverage companies to sell bottled water to crowds. Others didn’t really understand what the Water Wagon was all about.
 
“There’s nothing else quite like it out there, so until you see it in action, it’s hard to really get how useful it is,” says Miess.
 
It wasn’t until 2013 that the Water Wagon started turning heads, helped along by two major summertime events – Paddle and Portage and the Willy St. Coop annual membership party. Organizers of both events were struggling to get water to thousands of attendees without relying on throw-away bottles.
 
“The amount of environmental impact bottled water causes is astounding and unnecessary,” says Isthmus Publishing director of events Janelle Palmer, who organizes Paddle and Portage. “Having the Water Wagon at our events reduces our carbon footprint immensely and saves time, energy and money.”

Paddle and Portage attendees fill up at the Water Wagon
                                       Paddle and Portage, 2013
 
Jack Kear with Willy Street Coop had been looking for months for a sustainable way to supply water to the 4,000 to 5,000 people who attend the store’s annual membership party.
 
“Traditionally, the party featured cooling stations with jugs of water from Culligan, but we could never obtain enough or manage their dispensing for a crowd that huge … By having the Water Wagon present we can not only ensure the safety of the many attendees at our party who need to stay hydrated on hot days, but we stay true to our goal of reducing the amount of waste our Co-op is returning to the environment.”
 
As more and more event organizers seek to minimize waste, they’re looking to the Water Wagon for help. This fall, it will be a part of REAP Food Group’s Food for Thought Festival for the second year in a row. 
 
“REAP's work is focused on building a sustainable local food system, and we want to embody sustainability in everything we do,” says REAP’s executive director Miriam Grunes. “The Food for Thought Festival is our premier celebration of this work, and using the Water Wagon gives our attendees access to water without the cost and waste of using disposable water bottles.”

Woman takes photo of Water Wagon and people refill bottles

These days, the Water Wagon gets attention just about everywhere it goes, offering a small lesson in sustainability at every stop.
 
But Miess says for all the great attention about sustainability, the Water Wagon’s real draw isn’t much different than the water fountain at a neighborhood park – a cool sip of water on a hot day is pretty much as good as it gets.
 
“Not everybody wants to drink soda. People want water.”