Oregon water report shows stress on communities of color

June 9, 2021
Oregon water report shows stress on communities of color

A changing climate, aging infrastructure and lack of sustained investment have resulted in stress on Oregon’s water systems, with communities of color disproportionately affected, according to a recent report by the Oregon Water Futures Project.

The report’s lead author is Alaí Reyes-Santos, associate professor of Indigenous, race and ethnic studies at the UO. The report includes interviews from more than 100 individuals across eight different counties in Oregon throughout 2020, including those in partnership with the NAACP Eugene/Springfield and Coalition of Communities of Color, and Verde.

“This report highlights the need to engage communities historically discriminated against or marginalized in decision-making about water as leaders, designers and facilitators of conversations about water, as well as experts and teachers on the condition of water in their communities, and how to best care for drinking water and water ecosystems,” Reyes-Santos said.

The report spans a year’s worth of conversations with Native, Latinx, Black and various migrant communities across the state. The discussions shed light on the culturally specific relationships individuals hold with drinking water and bodies of water, concerns individuals have with water quality and cost, and the desire for water resource education.

Reyes-Santos worked in collaboration with Cheyenne Holliday, a 2020 UO graduate and associate project manager of Oregon Water Futures, and community partners Stacy Dalgaard from the Oregon Environmental Council, Taren Evans from the Coalition of Communities of Color and Kristiana Teige Witherill from Willamette Partnership.

“The initial idea for this project and its community partnerships was born out of an informal conversation at a Center for Environmental Futures symposium on public lands,” Reyes-Santos said. “Who knew that, two years later, a CEF fellowship and intellectual support would be so crucial for its completion? And now the Mellon-funded Just Futures Initiative hosted by CEF is where we pursue its next phase.”

The Oregon Water Futures Project is a collaboration between the UO, water and environmental justice interests, Indigenous peoples, communities of color, and low-income communities across Oregon. It was formed in response to disparities in the distribution of and access to water resources and water decision-making for Native and Indigenous peoples, people of color, migrants and low-income communities.

The report found that communities of color are disproportionately affected by water inequity and that access to clean, drinkable water across Oregon is becoming unreliable.

Some Oregonians live with serious water quality and availability challenges, according to the report. Conversations that state and local decision-makers are having aren’t aligning with the knowledge, priorities and concerns of many Oregonians facing water challenges. The report offers a bridge to connect policymakers with those facing critical water challenges.

Currently, pollution and invasive species are threatening vital food sources, and more frequent natural disasters in combination with stressed water systems mean tribal communities, low-income and non-English-speaking households face particular vulnerabilities that require specialized support. The report offers those specialized recommendations.

Communities of color, particularly those in rural and low-income areas, often face the brunt of climate change and water insecurity, such as rising utility rates, disparities in drought and flooding vulnerability, and exposure to nitrates, pesticides and heavy metals.

Statewide, the report found lack of trust on where drinking water originates, with some communities saying they didn’t trust their well water because pesticides were sprayed in the area or because of other safety concerns. Investing in infrastructure to create equal benefits for all communities is critical to developing a more just and sustainable water future across Oregon, the report concluded.

With emergency preparedness becoming more and more familiar after the 2020 wildfire season and COVID-19 pandemic, the feeling of being prepared in an emergency was also lacking across those interviewed in the report. Participants expressed concern about lack of information, particularly in other languages, or a safe place to go in case of an emergency.

Reyes-Santos has recommended steps the state can take to advance water justice throughout communities. With the report showing communitywide interest in learning about water issues, she points to culturally specific organizations to lead and design community engagement, investing in household well testing, treatment and replacement, and updating emergency notification systems to reach non-English-speaking, low-income tribal and rural residents.

With this year’s fire season looming, Reyes-Santos also points out that ensuring fire recovery funds are able to reach small water systems is critical, as systems of these size often get overlooked. Investing in water capacity in rural and low-income communities and communities of color also will help ensure the safety of drinking water.

“What is powerful about this project is how communities can learn from migrant communities, Native communities and other communities of color on how to care for water resources across the state,” Reyes-Santos said. “The management of resources matter, so are we managing it to see a future?”

—By Victoria Sanchez, University Communications

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An aerial view of a body of water.