Thursday, October 13, 2005 | The cliché “Don’t drink the water” weighs heavily in the minds of Tijuana tourists and residents. But two artists from the Midwest have made it their mission to get people to drink the water.

Inspired by the scarcity of the city’s clean drinking water, Steven Badgett and Matt Lynch – working together as the artistic collective SIMPARCH – have enlisted the sun and do-it-yourself principles to purify Tijuana’s untapped tap water.

The “Dirty Water Initiative” is one of 22 commissioned public projects for the bi-national art exhibition inSite_05, on display now through mid-November. However, its purpose is much more than mere artistic metaphor; it’s functional, too.

Using the simple concept of solar distillation, Badgett and Lynch conceptualized a “de facto public fountain” to provide one practical solution to handling an abundant, though widely unused resource: freely flowing, untreated wastewater.

This “monument to water,” which currently lives on a portion of the red-brick pedestrian walkway on the Tijuana side of the San Ysidro Port of Entry, consists of nine single basin, glass-top, stainless steel stills connected by pipes. At the end of the row of stills sit approximately five dozen or so large, clear blue, plastic water bottles – or “carboys” – the sort seen atop office water coolers.

As tap water is piped in, the sun heats it up in the black silicon-lined basins. The water rises to the top of the still (evaporation) and then funnels down the angled piece of glass (condensation) before exiting the basin. Each still is outfitted with a float (like those inside a toilet tank) that allows the dirty water to stay in while the clean water drips out into the carboys.

Lynch estimates that one still can produce about 4-8 liters of clean water a day, “depending on the clouds,” enough to supply one family with a day’s worth of drinking water.

Although the “Dirty Water” installation officially opened Aug. 27, the idea for the project arose over the course of several visits to Tijuana during the last two years. As Badgett and Lynch explored the city, taking tours of water treatment and municipal waste facilities, a greater interest in water issues started to soak in, particularly the lack of infrastructure and adequate sewage systems.

“… We wanted to put ourselves in the U.S.’s backyard to see for ourselves how people were living. Dealing with the ‘vital substance’ seemed a good way to do this and to gesture towards a correction of the problem, however minor,” said Badgett.

According to a report released by the California Water Resources Control Board, 76 percent of Mexico’s population is connected to sewage collection systems. However, only 23 percent of all raw sewage receives treatment.

With inSite’s help, Badgett and Lynch collaborated with U.S.-based nonprofit, community development organization Fundación Esperanza. Through the organization’s guidance, the two artists visited different colonias, or informal communities in Tijuana, where they were able to witness firsthand how people with very limited resources were dealing with water.

Borrowing the idea of basic solar distillation technology and design from an acquaintance in New Mexico, they began building and testing their own prototype stills in these communities.

The two spent about a month, split into two trips, living and working in the colonias, where differences in water conservation ideology were readily evident.

“One community (La Morita) we put one of the stills in, had water supplied, but no sewage system. Because they had water supplied, there was more waste of the water used than reused,” said Badgett. “In another colonia (Lazaro Cardenas), water is trucked in and stored in barrels … they were a lot more frugal in how it was used.”

The two also were influenced by the Ecoparque, a 2-acre green parcel of land in Tijuana along the highway to Tecate, that Lynch describes as an example of how to reuse wastewater creatively and rationally. The space, like many hillsides in Tijuana, was previously brown but thanks to a system of filtration and aeration, wastewater that would have gone into the sewer system is instead repurposed for plant irrigation.

The “Dirty Water Initiative” expands on the Ecoparque concept by making contaminated water fit for drinking.

“We’d like to see people doing more for themselves … in terms of limited resources, being more resourceful, to be conscious of use” said Badgett. “Our works involve keeping in mind a second use, doing a permanent thing rather than just the metaphorical concept.”

At the end of inSite_05’s run in mid-November, Badgett and Lynch will relocate each still to the colonias.

“Our hope is to inspire others to see how well they work and how easy it is to build their own,” said Lynch. “Simple solutions engineered well can be just as effective.”

Please contact Claire Caraska directly at

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