Oregon Water Futures Annual Community Event 2023
By Kellyn Baez
Imagine: it’s 96 degrees out, ospreys and bald eagles are soaring overhead as you canoe along the Willamette River. You’re gliding along surrounded by other water enthusiasts who are bonding over their visions for the future of Oregon’s water.
The Oregon Water Futures (OWF) is a collaborative group of water and environmental justice interests, Indigenous peoples, communities of color, low-income communities, and academic institutions. They help to shape how the future of water in Oregon is imagined through storytelling, capacity and relationship building, policymaking, and community-centered advocacy at the state and local level. Since then, they have produced several reports and connected with communities across the state.
OWF hosts a monthly virtual Water Justice Network to connect water advocates across the state who have been meeting since 2019. But they’ve never been able to all come together as a team due to the pandemic. On Saturday, July 15th, the members of the Oregon Water Futures Network finally met face-to-face for a paddle on the Willamette River. Isabel Sanchez of Coalition of Communities of Color and Kara Hamilton of Verde created a fun and relaxing event for folks who came from across the state to connect, celebrate, and be in community with one another.
As one of Willamette Partnership’s newest water team members, I had the opportunity to join and connect with this community. Opening with introductions, we gathered in a circle and shared our names and what water means to us. It was inspiring to hear about people’s connection to water and the essential aspects of water: for drinking; for growing; for healing.
A crowd favorite was when we heard from our youngest participant as she expressed why water was important to her:
“Caring for [water] for the plants, the fishes and playing with the water and being her friend,” she said with her hands held out, like she was holding water in them.
After introductions, we suited up in our life jackets, grabbed our paddles, and got in a canoe! For many of us, it was our first time in a canoe on the Willamette River. Hosted by Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership (LCEP), we immediately caught a wave from a speed boat and paddled across the river. Heading for Ross Island lagoon, it was easy to forget we were in the middle of the city, with eagles and ospreys flying overhead. Kudos to LCEP staff Mario Haro and Andy Bauer for keeping us moving in the right direction as our paddling slowed (or downright stopped) as we awed at the wildlife before us.
Our thoughts returned to the urban landscape surrounding us as Andy brought us closer to a giant pipe, where he explained how this former outlet of Portland’s combined sewer system impacted water quality in the Willamette River. When an urban area has a combined system, commonly referred to as a CSO, water from rain combines with raw sewage in pipes, overwhelming their capacity and releasing this toxic mix into waterways. Though the pipe is no longer operational, it’s unsettling to imagine how much sewer water used to go directly into the river, impacting water quality and the wildlife we had just seen with our own eyes. My brain went to the fish that we – along with the ospreys and eagles – consume for food, swimming in sewage and runoff from our roads. I also thought about the water, this one supply of fresh water we have for all of us, past, present, and future, and the importance of protecting it.
My thought was quickly interrupted by a splash of water coming from… above? Andy had brought a squirt gun! With temperatures soaring, this was a welcome relief, giving everyone a break – and some additional fun – along our ride. After our paddle, we were treated to delicious food from Meals for Heals, and folks settled into a relaxing afternoon, playing games, making art, and having conversations with familiar and new faces.
These spaces become anchors for inspiration and community building. Sitting in the canoe with everyone and hearing their ideas, seeing their joy, and forming that community to tackle our shared water challenges is integral to being good partners, together, in our work.
What is the Water Justice Network?
The Water Justice Network is a monthly virtual meet-up for water justice advocates across Oregon. The goals of the Oregon Water Justice Network are to:
- Learn about water justice work happening across the state
- Build relationships with one another to strengthen a statewide water justice movement and community
- Share stories, experiences, and resources
To prioritize frontline leadership and representation, this space is currently reserved for Tribal partners, community leaders, community-based organizations, and water justice allies from the non-profit environmental space. Learn more here.
If you are not from one of these types of organizations but would like to stay involved, we invite you to subscribe to our newsletter!
Thank you to Meyer Memorial Foundation for funding this next year of Oregon Water Futures work. With this funding, we’ll be able to continue building a larger Oregon Water Justice Network, start another Water Justice Leadership Institute, and implement the Water Justice Policy Framework through projects and community-led water campaigns.