Waterways & Watersheds

The health of Latino communities is intimately tied to the health of our waterways, which also play a role in Latino livelihoods, culture, history, and spirituality. Rivers flow through nearly 640 million acres of public lands in the US. Our public lands and waters are deeply connected to our stories, provide a place for families and friends to connect and relax, offer ample opportunities to create memories with loved ones, and are economic drivers from coast to coast.

Our rivers and streams are a priceless resource—they provide drinking water for a growing population, irrigation for crops, habitat for aquatic life, and countless recreational opportunities. In addition, water recreation has mental health benefits and relieves stress. But pollution from urban and agricultural areas continues to pose a threat to water quality. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, federal, state, and local governments have invested billions of dollars in reducing the amount of pollution entering streams and rivers. Yet more than half of the nation's streams have ecosystems in poor condition.

The urgency to protect our rivers and watersheds is imperative. 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, which Latino communities are particularly vulnerable to.

Why is this important to Latino communities?

Latino Health

  • Communities across the country – primarily low-income and communities of color – struggle to afford their water, or are faced with concerns over contamination from toxins, like lead and PFAS. What’s more, drinking water violations are more likely to occur in places where residents are people of color.
  • Living rivers and healthy watersheds provide profound benefits to nearby 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, and create cooling oases for relaxation and recreation.
  • Challenges to drinking water vary across U.S. communities and include threats from aging infrastructure, ongoing pollution, climate change, mismanagement, dysfunctional regulatory frameworks, inadequate safeguards, and a shortage of funding to address these problems.
  • Agricultural, extractive industry and urban runoff – from construction, pet waste and septic systems - contribute to the nutrient and contaminant loading of rivers and streams, as do microplastics.
  • Agricultural workers sacrifice their health on the job while contributing to the nutrient and chemical loading of air, rivers and streams. Latinos, who represent most U.S. agricultural workers, are among those who experience routine exposure to pesticides. Only 57% of crop workers report receiving instruction in pesticide best practices.
  • 15 million people in the U.S. experienced a water shutoff in 2016. Cities with higher rates of poverty and unemployment had the highest number of homes with water shutoffs.
  • 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. 64% of African-American and 45% of Hispanic/Latino children have few to no swimming skills.

Latino Cultural Heritage and History

  • Many communities are cut off from public lands and waters. 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. Those barriers also manifest themselves in the way the media is less likely to portray outdoor recreationists as people of color.
  • 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.

Latino Recreation

  • Water plays an important role in participants’ preferences on where to recreate because of the activities enabled by water access.
  • Latino non-visitation of recreation sites largely results from a lack of money, time, knowledge, language accessibility, and fear. Latinos often conceive of recreation as a place to gather with others in groups, which affects their decision-making on where and how to recreate.


Latino Jobs and Economy

  • The Colorado River is the lifeblood of the Southwest, where one-third of the nation’s Latinos live and work. Its water sustains over 40 million people in seven states, irrigating 5.5 million acres of farmland, generating 4 billion kilowatt-hours annually and driving a $1.4 trillion economy, but over-allocation and drought have placed significant stress on water supplies and river health.
  • Lakes provide fertile soil and water perfect for agricultural production. There are 2.5 - 3 million farmworkers in the United States, 80% of whom are Latino.
  • The Great Lakes region is known for its bountiful and diverse agricultural production which provides ideal conditions for corn, soybeans and hay crops, as well as 15% of the country’s dairy products.
  • Between the production of crops and livestock, the region produces $14.5 billion in annual agricultural sales.
  • The Everglades supplies freshwater to 9 million Floridians and fuels South Dade’s $1.5 billion agriculture and horticulture industry. But the watershed is facing drought, toxic algae blooms, and wildlife die-offs threatening tourism, outdoor recreation, businesses and human health.

Public Opinion

  • 93% of Latino voters in the West support restoring Clean Water Act protections for smaller streams and seasonal wetlands.
  • 91% believe that it’s very important for the president and Congress to take steps to protect drinking water from contamination.
  • 89% of Latino voters in Idaho support improving migration of salmon so that there are abundant populations.
  • 91% of Latino voters in the West support increasing federal funding to extend running water and sanitation services to rural areas and tribal communities who currently lack access.
  • 66% think that low levels of water in rivers is a very serious issue.

About Us

Hispanic Access Foundation connects Latinos and others with partners and opportunities to improve lives and create an equitable society.

Phone: (202) 640-4342

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