By: Vanessa Sanchez
Water is a fundamental element that gives life to so much across this earth. It is a vital resource that we as a society greatly depend on accessing in a form that allows us to lead healthy lives. However, while it is one of our most sacred and needed resources, it is one of our most inequitably distributed resources. Gaining proper access to clean drinking water is a crisis we have seen across the globe for a long time now. While it may seem so easy, access to clean and safe water in today’s society is not a right bestowed upon us from birth as it should be, but is very much so controlled by social hierarchies and financial resources. This is particularly true in many cases around the United States where access to drinking water as well as the infrastructure to obtain it is farfetched for communities.
While water’s vitality can be stressed over and over, one thing that is often overlooked and not talked about enough is water access and contamination. A key question to water issues is how do we as people deal with its contamination? In many parts of the country such as within Washington State, water is extracted out of the ground in order to provide millions with clean and efficient water. Groundwater is usually extracted in areas where a larger water source is lacking; and many people gain access to it through aquifers and wells. Because this water is in such a significant area, it is also subject to many contaminates such as nitrate. Nitrate contamination has been known to happen a lot of places within the US where there are high levels of agriculture, one of the leading cases being in the San Joaquin Valley in California. However, with many parts of the Pacific Northwest, specifically within Washington State being highly agriculturally oriented infrastructures, Nitrate contamination is a very local issue affecting ground water access specifically within the Lower Yakima Valley; one of the leading sources of nitrate pollution being local dairies.
Even though Nitrate may be a natural resource that is part of the nitrogen cycle, it still can have very harmful side-effects to those who consume it. The human body has the ability to convert nitrate to nitrite which is used to produce oxygen flow throughout the body. However, high levels of nitrate can severely affect people, particularly children. Nitrate is naturally transformed into hemoglobin, a chemical responsible for carrying oxygen through the body efficiently. (Mosby's Medical Dictionary, Elsevier, 2009). Once nitrate rises above a certain level, it reduces the ability of oxygen to be carried in red blood cells through the body causing drastic affects. High levels of it pose extremely dangerous risks to infants and pregnant women, causing babies to develop blue baby syndrome where the body physically turns blue from lack of oxygen within red blood cells and essentially stops oxygen from flowing through blood. Nitrate also cannot be extracted from water in the same way as other pollutants. Unfortunately boiling water does not reduce but rather increases the chemical concentration of nitrate in the water. Some of the water will evaporate but the nitrate will not (“Frequently Asked Questions About Nitrate and Drinking Water,” 2012).
Nitrate pollution within the Yakima Valley has been an existing environmental and public health issue for about sixteen years. In 2001/2002 the EPA started conducting groundwater tests within the area and discovered the level of this chemical was well beyond the nitrate drinking water standard of 10 mg (McKinney, 2013). Currently about 12% of the valley’s wells have been tested and have not met water quality standards (McKinney, 2013).
One example would be from my home community of Mabton, Washington located in the lower Yakima Valley where this environmental injustice resides. Mabton and its surrounding outskirts is a community which is severely affected by nitrate levels where consequently two city wells had to be shut off multiple times from 2013-2016. This has taken place among various times throughout the year, including during a drought nonetheless and was very inconvenient for many townspeople, sometimes even resulting in complete inaccessibility to the city water system for hours on end. In addition to Nitrate being one of the main pollutants in groundwater, many cases of E.coli have appeared in city aquifer sources and have since been reported and resolved. The city claimed at the beginning of the shut offs that this was due to maintenance issues but it was not until the wells were fully powered in 2013 that they announced issues with nitrate levels. While currently new water towers and aquifers are being built within the city, it is still a question as to why townspeople within Mabton were exposed to nitrate levels for so long without proper education or intervention about the pollutants.
Not being able to obtain clean ground water goes beyond infrastructure but rather is rooted in deep political and consumerist power structures. And those who are the most marginalized and disenfranchised are left to deal with the consequences with their bodies and with their livelihoods. Not only are they slowly being poisoned by pollutants such as nitrates within the Lower Yakima Valley but they are paying for a problem they did not create nor that they can afford through tax dollars and levies. To ask this from already low income communities shows the lack of accountability and the comfort these largescale agribusinesses and the lobbyists that fund and partner with political forces have in profiting off the struggling communities surrounding them; the very communities who fund them and provide them with workers, profit, land, infrastructure and resources. And while it may seem easy to just blame many of the local, large scale Lower Yakima Valley dairy and cattle farms, it to an extent is not even fully their fault. This issue goes deeper into the heart of consumerism and capitalism that is the foundation of many injustices with in the US. These farms and farmers can only survive off of subsidies from the government who favor large scale, monoculture businesses without a care for the consequences that comes with them. The system many farmers operate in perpetuate these issues and injustices, particularly with ground water at a deeper level then they even realize. As a native from the area I can testify to the fact that the main economic driver is agriculture. Most families, including my own, depend heavily on the job resources the agricultural industry offers whether it is within crops or livestock. In the long run, if these local dairies involved in nitrate pollution within the Lower Yakima Valley were to be shut down it would be detrimental to the communities. However, I do also believe nitrate pollution is a major health risk and is vitally in need of a solution beyond just infrastructure repairing.
Providing a more stable water system to the residents of the Yakima Valley is not an easy task, especially for those directly involved. However, with the right amount of support and action it can be done. And while this may seem like an issue that cannot be tackled, there is definitely hope. Educating, sharing and advocating with one another allows coalitions and networks among us to rise and be one voice that can be instrumental in leading the change the communities with the Lower Yakima Valley so desperately needs. Community conversations and forums surrounding not only nitrate and other pollutants in the water but about the infrastructure and institution that brings them to people’s lives is a crucial part to changing the system that ground water accessibility issues reside in. This responsibility should definitely not only fall on the backs of the people being effected by ground water issues but rather should include us all as we as a society should collectively be moving forward toward accessing clean and safe water for all, not just for those who can afford it.
Clemens, John; Vaccaro, John. “Yakima Basin Ground-Water Use Estimated.” USGS Washington Water Science Center. USGS Science for a Changing World. 18 September, 2006. Web. 24 January, 2014.
“Frequently Asked Questions About Nitrate and Drinking Water.” United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), October 2012. Web. 24 January, 2014.
McKinney, Charlie. Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Quality. Department of Ecology, State of Washington, September 2013. Web. 24 January, 2014.
“Methemoglobin and Hemoglobin.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex, Mosby's Medical Dictionary, Elsevier 8th edition. 2009. 24 January, 2014.
By: Vanessa Sanchez*
The Elwha River has been a source of controversy for quite some time now within Washington State. Being a historical source of the critically endangered King Salmon, there has been much debate about the river and its well being between recreational fishers and The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe since the illegal installation of the Elwha dam in 1912. Conversations and movements surrounding the Elwha dam removal were finally heard when deconstruction officially began in 2011 as the dam was very detrimental to not only salmon numbers but the whole riparian ecosystem within the surrounding area. While this seemed like a victory for all those involved on the outside as this is the largest dam removal in US history, the removal along with the restoration plan resurrected a long time running argument between tribes and recreational fishermen within Washington State. Heightened during the State’s civil rights history when treaty rights were very commonly and wrongly violated by the State government, this period of time known as the Fish Wars was one of the most vigorous fights for justice between many Coast Salish Tribes and the State. While the debate and now lawsuit between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and nonprofit recreational fishing organizations is different and modernized as it is regarding the fish hatchery the tribe has decided to incorporate into the restoration plan, it still is very rooted in the same biases and mentalities that were present during the Fish Wars.
While many may see this as an even fight or equal for both parties involved, it is still very much rooted in injustice, racism and prejudice, and most of all privilege just as the Fish Wars were. Tribes as sovereign nations are not only the people who very much so should be calling the shots when it comes to how to take care of and manage their resources but should also not be treated as having an equal or lesser stake in fishing and salmon regulations for the Lower Elwha River. For years especially during the era of the Fish Wars, the State utilized its power against many Native American people across the state, arresting and harassing those who were not only abiding and utilizing their treaty rights, but who were fishing as it was the only means to gain resources. Fishing is a way of life and for tribes and tribal members across the state to be reprimanded for that while recreational fishers could just pay for a license and exploit land and resources anywhere they pleased was a major injustice. After the federal ruling known as the Boldt decision occurred, it was very much so a victory for many Native people across the state but that only dampened the feud that existed between tribes and recreational fisherman.
While recreational fishing is very active and valued within this state, overall the argument for rights to fish and manage as much if not more than the tribe is not only an example of different values, but it is a huge sign of their privilege as communities and organizations. Recreational fisherman have options to fish for other species of fish rather than just salmon and have other places where they can fish that is not near or on tribal land. They want what they think is rightfully their resource when in reality they are only exploiting one of the very few resources the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has left after the trauma and perpetuity of colonization within their land. While it may seem like there should be a choice here that accommodates everyone, recreational fisherman also need to recognize and reflect on how much they are asking an already marginalized community to sacrifice for their hobby or sport. It can’t be about equality if there is not equity to help level the playing field first.
Throughout the whole case and argument, the people brought in to speak on the hatchery were not part of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, who are in charge of any state, federal restoration project, but from more local knowledge expertise such as local scientists and long running recreational fishing associations. While these are valuable sources and their knowledge may be extensive, it doesn’t compare to the long history of kinship and mutuality between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the fish in the river, and should not be addressed or compared even in the same manner. In order to bring justice to not only the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe but to the tribes where this debate seems to never cease, there needs to be a reformation of the way our systems of justice handle the situation. One that does not favor or weight the privilege and freedom of one group with the marginalization and oppression of the other as equal. Cultural and social values and traditions should be recognized and respected rather than overlooked and should be weighed in during legal processes such as the case between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the three nonprofit organizations. The behavior and mindsets of those involved, specifically those painting the picture of the Klallam tribe as villains for their hatchery is rooted in colonial behaviors and tactics that are still very much alive today even through implicit actions.
1) Kim, E.T. (2015). “Return of the fish wars: Hatchery pits environmentalists against tribe”.
2) Aljazeera America. Web. http://america.aljazeera.com/multimedia/2015/4/return-of-the-fish-wars-hatchery-pits-environmentalists-against-tribe.html.
3) The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Elwha River Restoration. Web. http://www.elwha.org/tribalprograms/riverrestoration.html. Mapes, L.V. (2016) “Elwha: Roaring Back to life”. The Seattle Times. Web. http://projects.seattletimes.com/2016/elwha/.
By: Vanessa Sanchez
Environmental justice, while a fairly new concept to our government system has been present in many of the grassroots movements and organizations in communities of color for quite some time now. It was adopted by the Obama Administration in 2011 and implemented into the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy procedures in order to make environmental action more equitable for communities. The Environmental Justice Movement however had been around since the 1980’s prior to its manifestation into policy. Developed by the proclaimed father of environmental justice, Dr. Robert Bullard almost 30 years prior to Obama’s initiatives strove to elevate and magnify the voices of those severely marginalized and effected by environmental injustices. Being a person of color himself, Dr. Bullard has been instrumental in the creation and continuation of a very real and honest conversation surrounding what it means to be a part of communities effected by a number of systemic and societal issues and injustices on the environment around you with no way nor tools to end them. While Obama was in many ways a game changer for the environmental justice movement, there is still a ton of work to be done in order to increase equity when it comes to who and what communities can live healthy lives within their living environment.
With the current state of our government and the support of any environmental advocacy on edge, it has become even more imperative that we learn and act on these issues on a local scale. While the Pacific Northwest is known for its tremendous respect, admiration and strong belief in environmentalism, it oftentimes tends to overlook and minimize the very real presence of environmental injustices across the land. Many marginalized communities of color, urban and rural, are effected by environmental racism; hazardous waste and toxic pollutant exposure; the stripping of treaty rights to land and resources; water pollution and access and so much more on a daily basis. Our governmental and societal systems perpetuate oppressive cycles that create a divide between those effected by these injustices and those on the other side of the issue that have the power to help fix it. Getting to know our communities issues and challenges can help us all by making us true agents of change for those within our living environment. We as people have to protect each other and our environment from harm. By banding together locally and forming coalitions on the ground and through networks, we are taking part in an even larger movement to bring to light and eventually end environmental injustices. Living a happy and healthy life should not just come down to equitable distribution of resources and goods, acknowledgement of inequities and fairness; that is only part of the story. Recognizing cultural values, and practices as well as these oppressive forces in all forms to make sure all voices are represented at the table when trying to solve environmental injustices is key to the advancement of the movement within the Pacific Northwest.