Introducing: Oregon Water Futures Project

We’ve read the headlines about lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., water shutoffs in Detroit, and the growing PFAS crisis in the Midwest and East Coast. Farmworkers in California without drinkable water and communities in Houston inundated by hurricane-driven floods.

A changing climate, aging infrastructure across the state, and lack of ongoing investment in clean water have left Oregon’s water systems stressed too, putting our health, safety, economy and environment at risk. But these challenges are not felt equally by all Oregonians.

So we asked: What water challenges are frontline communities facing here in Oregon?

We’ve met with Oregon tribes, community-based organizations across the state, agricultural workers and producers, utilities, and other community leaders to talk about Oregon’s water future. Some people have a really clear idea of what they need from our water resources. Others have never been asked.

Due to historic inequities, broken treaties and language barriers, communities of color in Oregon, particularly those that are rural and low-income, are often on the frontlines of these water impacts, facing a wide range of threats, including rising utility rates, lack of access to safe drinking water, disparities in drought and flood vulnerability, and exposure to nitrates, pesticides and heavy metals. In some rural counties, Native peoples and communities of color represent 30-40% of the population, yet face significant barriers to participating in state and local policy and infrastructure discussions.

In urban centers, redlining and historic underinvestment in communities of color have left people vulnerable to lead contamination and other toxics exposures. A new study revealed that almost 5,000 households in Portland lack a piped water connection, the second highest share of unplumbed households in the 50 largest U.S. metros. And households across the state face water affordability challenges.

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.

Already this fall, we’ve heard from more than 100 people across the state through virtual focus groups and phone interviews facilitated by Dr. Alaí Reyes-Santos, faculty and researcher at the University of Oregon. The experience, knowledge and ideas coming from these community members will contribute to how we envision water resilience in the face of environmental disasters and climate change.

When we started planning this project in 2019, the world felt like a very different place. The Governor’s office was developing a 100-Year Water Vision for Oregon, a new Water Committee had been formed in the state legislature, and we were organizing in-person community meetings to start in March 2020.

While COVID-19 forced us to pause and adapt, the combined crises of the pandemic, systemic racism and the economic downturn have shone new light on the importance of these conversations. 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.

Oregon Environmental Council believes that we can build a more sustainable and just water future when we enact bold protections for healthy watersheds, build broad solutions that are collaborative and community-driven, and center the priorities of tribal nations, communities of color, immigrants, rural and low-income Oregonians.

Through the Oregon Water Futures Project, we hope to illuminate what Water Justice means to Oregonians on the frontlines of our water challenges and identify new community solutions for today and future generations.

 

Funding for the Oregon Water Futures Project is provided by Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation, Wildhorse Foundation, University of Oregon Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies, University of Oregon Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, Resilience Initiative Seed Funding by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation at the University of Oregon, University of Oregon Center for Environmental Futures (Mellon Foundation), and the Lazar Foundation.

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