To the partners, friends, and supporters of Washington Water Trust:
Black Lives Matter.
With resolve, we add our voices to the collective anguish for the senseless loss of Black lives: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and too many more. The force and urgency of the Black Lives Matter Movement has also re-exposed racist actions and power structures that operate against Indigenous lives. We therefore also remember and grieve the tragic deaths of unarmed Native Americans including John T. Williams and Daniel Covarrubias. We promise to work harder to acknowledge and focus our actions in opposition to the systemic racism in our country which impacts so many communities of color as we pursue Washington Water Trust’s mission.
Washington’s history of racism helps explain why large water rights in Washington are usually owned by white people. Territorial Legislator, Samuel Thurston, for whom Thurston County is named, engineered passage of the 1850 Donation Land Claims Act, which allowed white settlers — and whites only — to homestead in what is now Washington and Oregon. That act denied African Americans the opportunity to homestead, and claim property and water rights in Washington, effectively creating a “white” Northwest. Consequently, in 1860, only 30 African Americans lived in the vast Washington Territory and they did not have access to the wealth that land and water rights created. That exclusion and inequity persists today.
We resolve to work harder for equity in all we do. Washington Water Trust’s mission is to protect and improve stream flows and water quality. WWT’s core work is to purchase and lease private water rights and repurpose them to benefit the broader public interest by putting water back into our depleted streams, aquifers, and rivers. That work benefits the ecosystem at large and, in particular, the fish and wildlife that so many communities rely upon. That work, we hope, specifically benefits the Pacific Northwest Indian Tribes for whom salmon are a central and essential aspect of their culture and identity.
As a historically and currently white-led organization, we have not confronted the ways that systemic racism intersects with our mission and our work. The intricate system of water law and policy in which WWT works is, at its core, inextricable from this region’s history of racism. The forced removal of Indigenous People from their lands throughout the Washington Territory allowed white homesteaders to claim both the land and the water to mine or irrigate those lands.
Washington’s first territorial governor, Issac Stevens, a pro-slavery Democrat, devised a boilerplate “peace treaty” which failed to acknowledge the diverse cultures and languages of the many Tribes who had lived and thrived here for eons. Tribes throughout the Northwest were essentially coerced into signing the treaties. These so-called peace treaties forced the many Tribes involved to cede vast amounts of aboriginal land to the United States government. The treaties restricted Indian people to much smaller tracts of less-desirable land, “reservations.” Even though appropriate translators were often present, Stevens forced the tribes to communicate in Chinook Jargon, a simplified language of trade that was inappropriate to capture the legal nuances of the treaties. After taking possession of these vast tribal lands through these treaties, the federal government opened them up to homesteading. As settlers developed these lands, the salmon, the rivers on which they depend, and this region’s Native peoples suffered greatly.
We recognize that we have been late in calling for land use and water policies that correct historical and current inequities. We believe, however, that WWT can continue to create water resource solutions anchored in collaboration. We resolve to center the voices of those who have been disenfranchised, and to double down on our work to make up for lost time. Moving forward:
- We will work to increase awareness around water equity and its disparate impact on communities of color and low-income communities
- We will continue to support an inclusive approach for community-led solutions for mitigating water scarcity
- We will elevate diverse voices in our decision-making processes and continually pursue new knowledge about the inequities that exist in the context of race, income, gender and culture.
- We will provide training for leadership and staff on anti-racism principles, conflict resolution, social justice, and strategies for aligning these principles with our work, as well as applying these principles and practices to diversify our staff and board.
- We will focus our efforts on and advocate for policies that will reduce adverse impacts to low-income and communities of color.
There is much work to be done by WWT and by society, and no doubt there will be failures as well as successes, but there must be progress.