SALEM — A report from the Oregon Water Futures Project reveals widespread distrust in drinking water among communities of color and a sharp disconnect between communities and policymakers when it comes to water policy.
Oregon Water Futures Project staff began interviewing members of native, Latinx, Black and migrant communities across the state in 2020, attempting to understand their water resource priorities. Partnering with Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, Euvalcree, Unite Oregon, Verde, NAACP Eugene-Springfield and the Chinook Indian Nation, 104 people across eight counties were able to participate.
According to the report, climate change, aging infrastructure and a lack of investment in clean water has stressed the state’s water systems, disproportionately risking the health, safety and economy of Oregon’s rural and low-income communities of color.
“There are serious information gaps about water bills, water quality and emergency preparedness that must be addressed,” said Alai Reyes-Santos during a media overview about the report.
Reyes-Santos is one of the lead authors of the report and a professor at the University of Oregon.
The University of Oregon is one of the institutions that comprises the Oregon Water Futures Project, which hopes to “elevate water priorities” and “impact how the future of water in Oregon is imagined.” Others involved in the collaboration include the Coalition of Communities of Color, Oregon Environmental Council and Willamette Partnership.
Those interviewed shared stories of inability to afford their water bills, buying bottled water because they don’t trust their tap water, rationing bottles to afford the added expense and boiling their water first or using other culturally specific practices to purify water. Water filters, they said, did little to assuage their fears about bad water quality.
“The experience of severe water scarcity in Mexico and Guatemala shapes water perspectives today,” said Dolores Martinez, community engagement director at Euvalcree, a nonprofit led by Latinos in Umatilla and Malheur counties that helped conduct 35 phone interviews.
The majority of the participants immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and Guatemala and many of them did not have potable running water in their country of origin.
“They learned how to source and clean water before using it to drink and cook. Some people still use this practice at home in Oregon because of a lack of trust in drinking water sources,” Martinez said.
Umatilla and Malheur counties were identified in a 2019 study among 16 counties in the Northwest with the highest rate of drinking water violations. Those violations were higher in low-income and communities of color.
Communities relying on well water are also increasingly concerned with poor regulation of domestic wells. Across different regions, participants thought there was not enough routine testing and they shared experiences with pollution of well water.