10 Ways Oregon Could Be A Water Leader

10 Ways Oregon Could be a Water Leader

By Bobby Cochran and Kristiana Teige Witherill


United for Infrastructure

Image provided by United for Infrastructure.

This week the White House approved Oregon’s request for public assistance. With the wildfires raging across the West, poor air quality impacting communities across the country, and the COVID-19 pandemic still ever-present across the world, now is when we need more federal infrastructure support to recover and build resiliency in our communities. The House introduced recent legislation to reduce the financial burden on state and local governments as they recover from fires, floods, and hurricanes. This is an important step in restoring the share of federal investment in water from its 60% high in the 1980s, to its current low of about 10% of total costs. 

For Oregon, there is every reason to act so that we recover in a way that sets up the next seven generations to thrive, especially when it comes to our infrastructure. There are actions our federal friends can take to secure our water future and there are actions we can take directly in Oregon. With water, for example, we have begun the conversation around Oregon’s 100-Year Water Vision. We have the tools to make a difference and there is no reason why Oregon cannot secure a place amongst the world’s water leaders. 

This Infrastructure Week, we wanted to share 10 ways Oregon could be a water leader and the success stories we can learn from to get there.

I. Our Forests are our Greatest Water Storage System

We need to manage forests in ways that reduce fire risk, store snow, and recharge our rivers and groundwater. Federally, the Forest Legacy Program supports forest protection efforts and the Healthy Watersheds Consortium blends public and private dollars to protect drinking water sources. In Oregon, the City of Forest Grove and others manage their headwater forests for clean water and sustainable logging. In Washington, the state legislature created a new grant program to help communities purchase forest land to create jobs and protect source water.

II. Make Good Use of Every Drop

Some of our irrigation canals and drinking water pipes are 100 years old and we need to make more efficient use of the water we have. The EPA estimated in 2013 that an average public water system loses 16% of their water supply due to leaky distribution systems each year. NRCS’ Watershed and Flood Protection Operations Program, USDA Rural Development Rural Utilities Service, and the EPA Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds can all give a boost to upgrading the infrastructure and systems designed for the last century. In Oregon, irrigation districts like the Owyhee Irrigation District are converting open channels into pressurized water pipes that deliver water more efficiently with less energy.

III. Center Community Voices in Water Decisions

Communities facing water insecurity (e.g., tribes, low-income families, people of color, and rural residents) have not had a strong voice in water infrastructure decisions. Yet, the impacts on water quality, water affordability, and water access affect these communities the most. Oregon has the opportunity to build a community-centered water policy. That means focusing investments to redress water insecurity, ensuring indigenous people and communities of color have capacity and can actively participate in water decisions, and building opportunities for new water entrepreneurs to start and grow water businesses. For example, Seattle Public Utilities set up an Environmental Justice and Service Equity Division to ensure its procurement, planning, and community connections were rooted in equity.

IV. Make Decisions from Clear Data

There is technology available to understand home and farm water use in real-time, allowing people to use water exactly when the crops need it, or to find a leak right as it happens. The City of Seal Rock on Oregon’s coast immediately reduced its overall water use when automated meters helped residents detect leaks and reduce their home water use. To use that technology, we need the same universal access to broadband that’s required for telehealth. The state can begin setting data standards, so it is easier to access and use the water data we have.

V. Partnerships are the Root of Resilience

Strong community partnerships have mobilized to respond to COVID-19, have effectively completed forest restoration plans, and can generate the visions and projects needed for a sustainable future. These partnerships include the national Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, Oregon’s Place-Based Integrated Water Resources Planning Efforts, Oregon’s Regional Health Equity Coalitions, and Oregon’s Regional Solutions Centers. Check out the Oregon Atlas of Collaboration for more. Federal funds can both support the capacity of these collaboratives to plan and act and can set aside project monies for the priorities identified by these collaboratives. The Ford Institute for Community Building has found that strong community partnerships have created a culture of care, and built capacity for community mobilization in the face of crisis. See the Spanish version of the summary findings here.

VI. Water is a Human Right

Abundant, clean, affordable water is fundamental to life and livelihoods. The United Nations General Assembly declared a human right to clean water and sanitation in 2010. The United States abstained from that vote, but states and cities across the country are making their own declarations. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and California acknowledge a right to water. Boston, Eugene, Pittsburgh, and Mountain View do as well. When we declare water as a human right, it means we can and should be held accountable to removing lead in school drinking water, restructuring how we pay for water so it doesn’t drain a family’s bank account, and honoring treaty rights with Oregon’s tribes.

VII. Get Rid of Toxins

There is a path to removing lead in drinking water pipes. We know how to do it, and it just takes some focused investment. Oregon has a 2016 plan for removing lead from school drinking water pipes. Let’s just do it. There are a growing set of strategies for cleaning up and financing the recovery of polluted sites. This is where some specific capital investment from federal partners can help.

VIII. Natural Landscapes are Infrastructure

Forests, rangelands, rivers, farms, and wetlands can help store, treat, and manage water just like a pipe, dam, or treatment plant would. When we declare natural lands as infrastructure, it makes it possible for economic development dollars to invest in nature and our communities. For example, by investing in wetlands that treat wastewater, the City of Prineville kept their system development fees low enough to encourage economic growth and created habitat for birds and attracted birders. Partners on the Deschutes restored part of the forest and meadow on Whychus Creek that also stores and recharges groundwater.

IX. Grow and Retain Water Talent

A large percentage of the water workforce is getting ready to retire. We have incredible youth entering the workforce who care deeply about Oregon’s future. Oregon should do more to invest in career pathways, water leadership development, and water entrepreneurship. Philadelphia, for example, is using its beverage tax revenue on programs to build a green workforce and grow green infrastructure.

X. Be Adaptable

Everything we know today will be different tomorrow. We need investments, policy, and expertise built for tomorrow’s challenges. This might mean repurposing one type of infrastructure for another as sea levels rise or being able to adapt water quality standards quickly as temperatures rise and the needs for salmon and other fish change. For example, the California Coastal Commission automatically updates permitting based on changes to sea-level rise projections.

Oregon has what it takes to be a world water leader. We need help from our federal partners with investment to catch up from 50 years of underinvestment. And as Oregonians, we can start our own work today with building a base of good, transparent information; capacity for local areas to do good water planning; and communicating a vision to our neighbors on why water is essential to Oregon’s resilient future.

Bobby Cochran led Willamette Partnership's work around building community resilience and innovation. He is passionate about supporting community leaders to move resources from dumb stuff to better stuff - especially when that means clean water, better health, and economic inclusion. Bobby is now with the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. He received a Ph.D./M.A. in Urban Studies/Conflict Resolution from Portland State University.


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