Infrastructure Can Save Lives

Infrastructure Can Save Lives

By Sara O’Brien


I’m writing today from our “evacuation home,” staying with family here in southeast Portland. Like many rural Oregonians, my family left home a week ago, and we have not yet been able to return. We were luckier than many – the Dowty Fire stopped a few thousand feet from our door when the winds died down. And unlike many of our neighbors in both rural and urban communities, we have a safe indoor space to stay while we wait out the smoke. 

These devastating wildfires are bringing a new urgency to the theme we had intended to focus on this week here at Willamette Partnership. September 14-21 is Infrastructure Week, a week to recognize the importance of infrastructure and the people who make it work, and to think about how we can build more resilient and future-oriented communities. 

A few days ago, our friends at the National Rural Water Association shared this from Jason Green, executive director of the Oregon Association of Water Utilities:

“Oregon Rural Water is currently managing contacts and requests and reaching out to the numerous cities and utilities that we can reach and will soon be in the field to assist in the next day or two….We are visiting with operators and public works directors and they are telling horrible stories with short videos of piles of ashes where home used to be. Fire trucks abandoned and burned along a road. Water operators are getting back into some towns to ensure water sources are running to fight fires. Police escorts required. Many state and interstate highways closed down, smaller rural roads impassable…”

Watershed Graphic

Graphic provided by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board – Oregon Water Vision

We want to give a shout-out and a huge THANK YOU! to everyone that’s working to keep our communities safe and healthy. From wildland firefighters and public land managers protecting the forests that provide our drinking water, to local utility workers trying to keep water in the pipes and restore power. It takes a whole landscape and a community of people to keep these systems running and to keep one another safe.

Recognition is important, but it is no substitute for investment. Infrastructure – water, power, transportation – is not a “nice to have” or an optional investment for our communities. Infrastructure saves lives, and it is the backbone that determines whether our communities will thrive or crumble. Infrastructure saved my home this week, and it undoubtedly saved many, many lives.

Now is the time for significant federal action – both emergency funding and long-term investment in rebuilding our infrastructure. Local communities and states have incredible vision, capacity, and tools at the ready to #RebuildBetter, but they need money to make it happen. In order to rebuild resilient communities, we need the support of the federal government. And for Oregon, there is every reason to believe we can rebuild communities that will thrive. Stay tuned later this week as our water experts weigh in on what that might look like!


Feature image provided by United for Infrastructure.

In her role as Executive Director, Sara O'Brien, is Willamette Partnership’s chief strategist, lead conductor, and biggest fan. Under her leadership, Willamette Partnership is helping to build a future in which people build resilient ecosystems, healthy communities, and vibrant economies by investing in nature. Most recently, Sara was Willamette Partnership's Director of Strategy and Business, helping to refine its business strategy and identify opportunities for growth. She previously worked at Defenders of Wildlife, the University of Arizona's Institute of the Environment, and the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia. Sara holds a B.A. in anthropology and linguistics from Grinnell College and an M.S. in natural resource management from the University of Arizona. In her spare time, she enjoys relaxing with projects such as managing a farm, building a straw bale house, and raising children.


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