This week my mind is on clean water. While the Biden administration is designing new programs for conservation like America the Beautiful, Congress continues to negotiate a bill to make historic investments in climate and clean energy, and the federal government has a windfall of new funds to distribute to communities for parks and infrastructure. What flows between all of these initiatives — and between all living things — water. It must be front and center this week — Latino Advocacy Week.
Water is a precious resource and the foundation of life itself. The health of Latino communities is intimately tied to the health of our waterways, playing a role in Latino livelihoods, culture, history and spirituality. Healthy freshwater systems are essential to sustain every community, preserve natural resources and habitats, grow our crops, provide recreational opportunities and re-energize our economy.
Healthy watersheds — which include mainstem rivers as well as their riverside lands, wetlands, small streams, floodplains and estuaries — build resilience to climate change by providing flood protection, recharging aquifers, habitat for wildlife, water supply and water quality benefits. These areas also absorb and reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and provide sources of drinking water. In urban areas, living rivers and healthy watersheds provide profound benefits to cities. They provide water supplies, filter out water and air pollutants, build coastlines by moving sand to ocean beaches, provide critical habitat, sequester carbon and other greenhouse gasses, regulate floodwaters, as well as create cooling oases for relaxation and recreation. In addition, water recreation has mental health benefits and relieves stress, which we all need more of every year.ADVERTISEMENT
But over the past decades, we have seen increasing temperatures, record flooding, more frequent and severe hurricanes and droughts and wildfires that threaten our communities and water resources from coast to coast. These impacts have hit our freshwater systems especially hard, illustrating the urgent need to work together to adapt to the impacts of climate change that will affect our communities and the environment on which we all depend. More than half of the nation's streams have ecosystems in poor condition.
These environmental harms disproportionately affect communities of color, low-income and Indigenous communities. A history of colonization, land theft and centuries of racial injustice has created river landscapes that exclude Indigenous, Black and Latino people, disconnecting them from places and resources vital to their identities, culture and survival. In addition, as a result of generations of discrimination, Black, Indigenous and Latino communities are often located in floodplains, drained wetlands or adjacent to sewage outfalls, where they are disproportionately impacted by pollution and flooding. Moreover, safe access to water is a matter of life or death for Black and Latino children, who are more likely to drown due to a lack of access to swimming lessons and clean, safe water to learn to swim.
Too many communities who live near freshwater resources have poor water quality, unsafe dams or other barriers that are trapped underneath concrete or channelized with limited or no safe access. Many of our urban streams — which provide numerous clean water and recreational benefits — were buried, channelized or utilized as a dumping site as cities grew, especially around communities of color. Today, unhealthy and disconnected rivers can result in localized flooding, detach communities from their local waters and impede important habitat, among other challenges.
For many communities, restoring freshwater resources is a necessary first step toward rectifying these injustices. Embarking on a swift course of action to protect, restore and conserve rivers and their surrounding areas is of paramount importance to preventing permanent damage to our most precious resource and the communities that depend on them. Federal and state funds, programming and new policy initiatives directed toward environmental health should recognize that freshwater systems are the arteries between healthy lands and the ocean, as well as the need for their protection and restoration is just as great. Since degraded waterways bring pollution from the land to the ocean and impact communities on all fronts, their protection and restoration cannot be overlooked.
To ensure communities have access to safe, healthy rivers and freshwater, environmental initiatives should include river restoration as an important tool to improve the overall health of freshwater resources and local communities. Lawmakers can do that by facilitating nature-based solutions, like restoring wetlands, reconnecting floodplains, establishing floodways and protecting headwater areas to improve climate resiliency for rivers and the communities they rely on by restoring natural processes of rivers. River restoration solutions can also remove the root causes of river degradation and restore river functions by removing dams, culverts and other barriers and reconnecting rivers to floodplains by setting back or breaching levees.
Priorities and resources must be concentrated where they are needed most — in environmental justice, low-income, immigrant and communities of color. In the past, these groups have not been prioritized for investment when addressing or investing in our nation’s infrastructure or environmental issues, nor have they been included in the decision-making. This treatment of disinvested communities as disposable has been one of the primary factors leading to today’s status quo of unhealthy watersheds and loss of the nature that sustains them. We can start by restoring and protecting areas important to the culture and heritage of Latino, Black, Indigenous, as well as other communities of color.
The urgency to protect our rivers and watersheds is imperative. Rivers flow through nearly 640 million acres of public lands in the US. Healthy waterways are needed to ensure clean water access for all, access to freshwater recreation for traditionally underserved communities, and resilience to droughts and flooding.
Water is fundamental to Latino culture, heritage, jobs and family life. Nine in 10 Latinos support restoring Clean Water Act protections for smaller streams and seasonal wetlands; nine in 10 believe that it’s very important for the president and Congress to take steps to protect drinking water from contamination; and nine in 10 support increasing federal funding to extend running water and sanitation services to rural areas and tribal communities who currently lack access.
Latinos represent the largest untapped segment of the population when it comes to civic engagement and political potential. We are just beginning to tap that potential. Lawmakers can begin responding to Latino voting power by making a difference on an issue with near-universal approval and a great need for action: clean water.
Shanna Edberg is the director of Conservation Programs for Hispanic Access Foundation.