A study of one of the largest watershed councils in Portland shows some inequities and a disproportionate representation by the city’s wealthier, well-connected, and liberal residents.
The study published in a recent issue of the Natural Resources Journal, sheds light on the difficulty of fostering widespread community engagement among a diverse array of citizens.
Denise Lach, a professor in Oregon State University’s School of Public Policy, conducted the research with Kelli Larson, now an assistant professor at Arizona State University. Larson was a graduate student at OSU when the study was done.
The researchers surveyed and interviewed residents in the Johnson Creek Watershed, a 55-mile area which includes portions of southeast Portland, Gresham, Happy Valley and Milwaukie. Specifically, Lach said they hoped their research would answer the question of whether community-based, volunteer-run watershed councils represent a wider array of people than the political status quo.
“We found that working class residents were under-represented on the watershed council, and that higher-income, newer residents with more liberal political interests were over-represented,” Lach said. “This differentiation in representation has caused some concern, especially among those who live in the downstream areas.”
These feelings of concern were especially prevalent in one neighborhood, a flood-prone area called Lents, where discontent goes back to 1912, when Lents was forcibly annexed by the city of Portland. Residents in this area today reported feeling less engaged in the watershed council process, and negatively affected by decisions they didn’t have a choice in.
“There is a perception that watershed policies have been forced on those who live downstream and near rivers,” Lach said. “So while higher-value land uphill is allowed to develop, those who live downstream feel they are forced to deal with the consequences.”
The residents who answered in the survey that they participated in the watershed council were much more likely to have lived in Oregon less time and to have higher education levels than those who were either only nominally involved or not at all involved. Almost 90 percent of survey respondents said they were not at all or only minimally involved in the watershed council.
In addition, those who did participate on the watershed council were twice as likely as other residents to be involved in other governmental or civic organizations.
“There is a need to move away from elegant land use policies and focus more on community engagement,” Lach said. “Different populations need different types of activities to engage them and for some that may not mean coming to meetings, but instead spending a day pulling some ivy.”
Lach said this study was developed as part of a special conference titled, “As if Equity Mattered.”
“If you want to take equity seriously in natural resources, and not just reproduce places where only well-educated, well-connected people convene, then real representation is necessary,” she said. “For policies to be acceptable to people, then they have to feel their voices are heard and represented.”
Lach said in order to expand and enhance the hard work of local watershed councils, special efforts must be employed to fairly engage an array of community members in diverse watershed activities.