2021 Water Outlook

As OEC gears up for the mad rush of the legislative session, our water program is building momentum for a more sustainable and just water future inside and outside the (virtual) walls of the Capitol.

Over the past year, OEC water program staff have been advancing two core strategic program areas: prioritizing natural infrastructure solutions to our state’s water challenges and elevating the perspectives of historically underrepresented communities in water policy. After extensive outreach, relationship building and collaboration with other organizations to explore how to move these goals forward, policy pathways for this important work are beginning to take shape in 2021:

Expanding funding for natural infrastructure

If you’re a regular OEC blog reader, you’re likely familiar with the term “natural infrastructure.” That’s where we rely on natural or nature-based systems (floodplains, forests, riparian zones and urban natural areas) to provide services we usually associate with built infrastructure (levees, riprap, dams, concrete cooling tours).

We believe that by incorporating more natural infrastructure approaches into our state’s toolkit for water management, we can accomplish more, benefit our communities and ecosystems, and pass savings along to Oregonians.

As a new Congress considers major federal infrastructure investments that can help drive economic recovery, those dollars will undoubtedly fuel water projects across the state. To make sure natural infrastructure approaches are prioritized, we are working to ensure there are funding pathways in Oregon to make more natural infrastructure projects possible and that practitioners (e.g., city managers, engineers, and agency staff) fully understand the opportunity and have resources to trouble-shoot barriers.

Across the board, infrastructure projects that implement nature-based solutions while prioritizing community involvement and emphasizing the inclusion of co-benefits are not only cost-effective and environmentally friendly, they become building blocks in the development of a strong, diverse and healthy community.

Elevating water justice

Over the past year, OEC’s water program has been co-developing a collaborative project centering environmental justice and community priorities for our shared water resources.

Together with University of Oregon, Coalition of Communities of Color, Willamette Partnership, Chinook Indian Nation, Euvalcree, NAACP Eugene-Springfield, PCUN, Unite Oregon, and Verde, we are working to elevate the experiences and concerns of Black, Native, Latinx, immigrant and low-income Oregonians in water policy decision-making. This effort is called the Oregon Water Futures Project.

Building back better means something specific for communities without running water to wash hands, those facing water shutoffs because they can’t afford their bills, and the many people whose experiences and priorities have not historically been part of water policy discussions in Salem. It means responding to their needs, both in the immediate crises today and in creating a more equitable and sustainable tomorrow.

In 2021, we will continue these partnerships and engage new stakeholders to co-develop a water justice framework to help elevate what water justice means to Oregonians on the frontlines of our water challenges with policymakers making water management and infrastructure decisions throughout the state.

Strengthening water protections

Other things we’ll be keeping an eye on: improving how we measure and report water use throughout the state, protecting water quality when you flush, and ensuring those dependent on well water for drinking have information about its safety.

Oregon has many tools in its toolkit to create meaningful change. OEC specializes in legislative advocacy – working with your state elected lawmakers to pass laws at the Capitol – but our program staff also invest significant time pushing for action from the Governor’s Office and state agencies through executive orders (like the Governor’s Executive Order on Climate), rulemaking procedures, votes by boards and commissions (like the recent OTC STIP decision), and advising on program design (like with ODA’s Pesticide Stewardship Partnership program). Through all of these venues, our team is always looking for the best approach to achieve long-term, sustainable progress on our environmental and public health goals.

While climate change, COVID and the economy, racial justice and state budgets are big issues in Salem this legislative session, our water systems underpin and interrelate to all of these conversations and we must continue to find pathways for progress on sustainable water management.

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