Guest column: Environmental justice begins with clean, safe drinking water for everyone
We can all recognize that Colorado is facing an unprecedented water crisis. In the midst of the worst mega-drought in 1,200 years, we are enduring hotter and drier conditions that have fueled increasingly frequent and devastating wildfires, and all the associated impacts. But while drought, heat, and wildfire affect us all, the reality is that some communities are impacted far more than others.
Water impacts every aspect of life in Colorado, and therefore impacts every Latino family across the state. From the water we drink and use for our basic needs, to our economic stability sustained by strong agriculture, ranching, and recreation industries — we all depend on sound management of our increasingly scarce water resources. And ensuring equitable access to clean, safe drinking water is essential to our collective future.
As organizational leaders, we are acutely aware of both the water quality concerns and environmental justice concerns facing Latinos in Colorado. And data from our recently released Colorado Latino Policy Agenda (CLPA) report confirms the need for increased focus on the water crisis and systemic inequities impacting the Latino community in particular.
With more than 1,500 respondents from across the state, the 2022 CLPA report was based on the largest non-partisan poll of Latino registered voters ever conducted. Among its many noteworthy findings, the poll revealed a rising concern over water quality in the Latino community. And with good reason.
According to the poll, nearly 1 in 3 Latinos statewide (30%) do not trust or drink the water in their homes, and that distrust of water quality climbs to more than 40% among mobile home residents. Of those, about 20% say they must boil their water before drinking it, with an equivalent percentage stating concerns about the health and wellness of their families being affected due to poor water quality, not to mention the damage caused to plumbing and appliances by contaminants in the water. As a result, a full 80% of Latino voters polled in 2022 support passing new regulations that would require mobile home parks to provide residents with clean drinking water. Unfortunately, existing laws, regulations and incentives have been inadequate at protecting mobile home park residents from neglected infrastructure, water with bad odor, taste and color, or even worse situations.
While the message to policymakers on the need for universal access to clean water should be clear, the struggle to translate our needs into action remains. Historically excluded and misrepresented communities including Latinos, communities of color, tribal nations and low-income Coloradans want and need to be a part of the solutions to combat water insecurities and the broader concerns of climate change. Yet all too often our voices go unheard, our needs unmet. In order to have any meaningful impact on our communities, guidance around policymaking and water-related legislation must be viewed through the lens of equity.
Environmental justice exists when everyone has a healthy and safe environment — including access to clean, safe water for drinking and other basic needs. But that access is not assured, nor is equitable representation in existing decision-making spaces. That reality is especially evident in the rural communities of Colorado, where equity and access to water are undeniably tied.
Mobile home parks, for example, serve as the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in Colorado, accommodating an outsized percentage of Latino residents as workforce housing near resort communities and rural agricultural regions. Yet, even in some of the wealthiest counties in Colorado, many of those mobile home residents can’t drink the water, use it for cooking, or even bathing.
Meanwhile, residents can spend thousands of dollars for filters, water heaters, dishwashers, and other appliances damaged by hard water that often goes unreported due to fear of retaliation from landlords or lack of interest from local elected officials. People, organizations or entities in power denying access to clean water or seeking more water for their own needs at the cost of others is the very definition of environmental injustice.
If meaningful progress toward greater racial equity and inclusivity is to be fully realized, it must begin with the willingness to identify needs, solutions and priority community investments for all — not just those who can afford it. The challenge is to ensure Colorado has sufficient clean water for our homes, businesses, and to grow our food without adding pressure to already under-resourced, overburdened communities.
We must preserve our diverse economy, protect the environment, rivers, biodiversity, and improve our resiliency in the face of a changing climate, all while supporting communities that have been systematically marginalized through exclusion of their voices and needs. Passing new regulations requiring mobile home parks to provide residents with clean drinking water is a good starting point, but we also need local governing bodies like town councils and county commissioners to invest the required time, energy, and resources toward helping the people in their communities that are being targeted and marginalized.
Ultimately, we must all continue to work in the spirit of lifting up those who are most at risk and disproportionately impacted as a means to lift up the entire community. Our future depends on it.
Beatriz Soto is Chair of the Board of Directors of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and a nationally recognized environmental justice leader. She currently leads Protégete, a program of Conservation Colorado.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a Latino-created, Latino-led nonprofit organization working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties.
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