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Regional Interests

Oregon’s communities of color face clean drinking water inequities, report says

A new report highlights water distribution inequities many communities of color experience throughout Oregon. The study also calls for a change in how water-policy decisions are made.

Lack of trust about where drinking water comes from, poor water quality in certain communities, and high drinking-water costs were among some common themes in the report’s list of inequities experienced by Black, Indigenous and communities of color.

The Oregon Water Futures Project aims to change how state and local water policies are made and to inform them with voices from communities of color.

More than 100 individuals from eight different counties were interviewed for the project. Those included, Native American, Latino and Black people and members of various migrant communities across the state.

“We centered the voices of communities underrepresented or historically discriminated against in water policy decision making,” said Alaí Reyes-Santos, an associate professor at the Indigenous, Race, and Ethnic Studies Department at the University of Oregon.

The report says climate change, aging infrastructure and lack of investment in clean water have put extra stress on communities of color, especially those living in rural and low-income communities.

Reyes-Santos said other interviewees also brought up concerns about a lack of information on their water bills, water availability and emergency preparedness for when a disaster happens.

“Migrants in rural areas buy bottled water because they do not trust their tap water,” she said. “Some people even ration it to save money, drink less water because they cannot afford to buy more.”

The report also highlighted the need to bring culturally specific knowledge into policy-making decisions, including input from people whose Native American tribes are not recognized by the federal government. That includes people from Chinook Indian Nation, the Clatsop and Cathlamet of present-day Oregon, and the Lower Chinook, Wahkiakum, and Willapa of what is now known as Washington.

“This report isn’t about federal acknowledgment, but we have all the issues of Indian Country with limited means of resolving those issues,” Chinook Indian Nation Councilwoman Rachel Lynne Cushman said.

Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), a group that advocates for farmworkers and Latino families, joined as a partner to help facilitate group community outreach. PCUN Executive Director Reyna Lopez said one common theme throughout all communities was lack of communication and language barriers. During the 2018 algae bloom in the Detroit Lake Reservoir, she said her community was one of the last to receive vital information about the contamination in the drinking water.

“It was really unfortunate that there was also people getting taken advantage of in these moments of crisis, where we were seeing drinking water that was at stores, the prices getting pumped up three times in communities that were Latinx or immigrant majority communities in the Salem-Keizer area,” Lopez said.

She also mentioned the need to build new infrastructure that will withstand emergencies brought on by the burning of fossil fuels, which emits carbon into the atmosphere, resulting in climate change.

“We can’t lie to ourselves about this. We can’t not face this anymore,” she said. “These emergencies are coming, whether we like them or not. More wildfires, more climate shifts and us not having real emergency responses in place to be able to collectively care for our community is not going to be helpful.”

The next steps for the project include reaching out to more communities of color to gather more input and go back to the communities they interviewed to share their findings. Reyes-Santos said the coalition will continue to work on policy engagement with state agencies.

The water justice collaborative was formed by the Oregon Environmental Council, Willamette Partnership, Coalition of Communities of Color, and the University of Oregon. Chinook Indian Nation, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), Euvalcree, Unite Oregon, Verde, and the NAACP Eugene-Springfield chapter joined as local co-hosts and project partners to lead outreach to community members and actively collaborate on research design, engagement approach, facilitation, and project findings.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting