New Water Justice Report: A Launching Point for Research and Policy Development 

It should go without saying that clean water is foundational to every aspect of our lives. But the reality is that there are far too many people in Oregon who struggle to have their water needs met every day. For some it’s poor water quality, for others, it’s lack of access to water, unaffordable water costs, or diminished natural resources. 

These water justice challenges are highlighted in a new report that builds on our work in the Oregon Water Futures Collaborative and expands the base of evidence demonstrating how frontline communities are impacted by Oregon’s water challenges. Click the four arrows in the bottom right corner below to enlarge the report. 

2022 Water Justice Report

As I met with tribal government officials, community-based organizations, and water stakeholders over five years as Outreach Director for OEC’s Clean & Plentiful Water Program, I identified gaps between the conversations state lawmakers were having and the daily experiences of many people living in Oregon. I often heard from both community-based organizations and policymakers that, to better engage on the issue of water justice, they needed a clearer understanding of how water issues directly impact frontline communities across the state. 

This realization led to the formation of the Oregon Water Futures Collaborative, which includes OEC, the University of Oregon, Willamette Partnership, Coalition of Communities of Color, Verde, and other community partners across the state. The Collaborative’s first report featured interviews with more than 100 Black, Native, Latinx, immigrant, and low-income Oregonians and highlighted how the water realities experienced by frontline communities don’t always line up with the state’s water management frameworks, leaving many important water issues unaddressed or hidden.

Just released, the new State of Water Justice in Oregon report examines many of those hidden challenges alongside some of Oregon’s most pressing water issues. Using a statewide environmental justice lens, the report explores racial disparities in plumbing access to overburdened rural water utilities, water access in workplaces, failing water infrastructure, and more. It draws from a range of sources to paint a picture of what is meant by “water justice” in Oregon and helps set the stage for further development of community-led strategic priorities to address these challenges.

The findings of this and other research on water justice point to structural barriers in Oregon’s water management system that may be slowing the state’s progress in advancing water justice. Key themes that emerged include the following: 

  • Some community-identified water challenges do not fit neatly into current agency jurisdictions, keeping them from getting on the water policy agenda; 
  • Definitions of environmental justice that are too narrow or too broad can dilute impact; 
  • Pockets of water challenges can hide within larger communities; 
  • Communities need more analysis comparing water issues in the context of social vulnerability and environmental justice; and 
  • Issue areas without public plans and prioritization are harder to navigate without deep policy expertise. 

In addition to these structural barriers, the report identified information and analysis gaps related to infrastructure, public health, emergency planning, housing, labor, and natural resources that could also be limiting the state’s ability to make progress on water justice.

The Oregon Water Futures Collaborative is in the process of developing a Water Justice Policy Action Framework to help shape state and local efforts to advance a water justice agenda and begin to resolve our long-standing disparities in water resources by engaging low-income, rural, and communities of color as water actors and community assets. These communities offer creative solutions to water challenges that the state faces. The framework will provide policymakers with a roadmap for centering equity as they weigh the state’s many water needs.

To follow the Oregon Water Futures Collaborative and stay informed of water justice issues and movement-building efforts in Oregon, sign up for updates at https://www.oregonwaterfutures.org.

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