Most of the time the Rio de Flag flows through Flagstaff like a garden hose with the faucet turned off — in other words not at all.
“We’re talking about an ephemeral stream that only experiences flow during the spring runoff season and during monsoon season,” said Chelsea Silva. “Other than that, it’s completely dry. It’s a wash, really, is what it is.”
Silva is the executive director of Friends of the Rio de Flag (FoRio), a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring and protecting the Rio de Flag whether it looks like a river or not.
“Stream, river, wash, whatever you want to call it, it’s still important to think about the quality of the water, and that it supports riparian habitat, and that it is an important piece of our community,” she said.
Important, but also complicated. Flagstaff’s founders built the city in the middle of a flood plain where twice a year nature turns on the faucet with a vengeance. Snowmelt from the nearby San Francisco Peaks swells the Rio de Flag every spring before heavy rains swell it again during late summer — each time posing the threat of flooding.
After a pair of epic floods in 1903 drowned the downtown with up to 15 feet of water, city fathers took steps to control the flooding, including rerouting a stretch of the river.
But the changes didn’t stop the flooding. They merely shifted the inundations to a historically segregated part of town known today as the Southside, where the mostly minority residents have paid the price ever since.
The rerouting of the Rio de Flag is an old but familiar story to many neighborhoods of color and poverty across America. Whenever cities and counties faced a decision about where to put a landfill or a chemical plant or some other noxious necessity, they most often put them in marginalized neighborhoods and relegated minorities to those areas based on the color of their skin.
“There was a time not so very long ago — I’m talking the early 20th century — when those decisions by local government ... integrated racial segregation into the fabric of land use and zoning,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, senior advisor with Skeo Solutions, a Virginia land-use consulting firm.
Righting those wrongs and moving forward to a more equitable future is the province of environmental justice — a growing realm of public policy that promotes fairness, values what all stakeholders have to say and works to engage communities in decisions that affect their quality of life.
“(Everybody) no matter their economic station in life or their racial or ethnic background, we all essentially want the same thing,” said Miller-Travis, who specializes in environmental justice and equitable development. “We want to be safe where we live, we want to thrive, and we want a safe and clean environment. Some of us get it without batting an eye. And some of us have to fight like hell for that on a daily basis.”
After more than a century of flooding, a lingering cloud of environmental injustice hangs over the Southside neighborhood in Flagstaff. Although less severe and more localized than in the past, the flooding blocks streets, deposits debris and subjects residents to the cost of federally mandated flood insurance.
Efforts are now being made to better recognize the issues facing Southside residents. Armed with an environmental justice grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), FoRio is reaching out to the Southside community to gather their thoughts about the future of the Rio de Flag.
This comes amid conflict over long-discussed plans that would end the flooding but route a portion of the Rio de Flag underground. Those on the Southside who are affected by the flooding generally support the plans, while many elsewhere want the entire channel to remain above ground as a natural feature — a position that threatens progress on the flood control plans and is perceived as a “slap in the face” by many on the Southside, Silva said.
While preservationists formed FoRio in 2007 to support keeping the entire channel above ground, the organization has since taken a step back in order to “pay attention to the human element,” Silva said.
The outreach to the Southside by FoRio helps ensure that the voices of those hit hardest by the flooding aren’t drowned out by the people clamoring to preserve the natural features of the Rio de Flag, said Sara Dechter, comprehensive planning manager for the city of Flagstaff.
“It’s just a continued injustice if we let other neighborhoods decide what’s best for the Southside,” Dechter said. “That’s what they’re used to. They’re so used to not being asked or being asked and ignored that (they) are very, very skeptical that we mean it when we say we actually want them to influence the outcome.”
Miller-Travis runs into that all the time while helping resolve environmental justice issues arising from landuse planning, regulation and development.
People think that writing a letter or speaking at a public hearing is just a “check-the-box exercise,” she said. “There’s a plan in place and that plan is going to go through whether you come out or not. That’s what most people think. And most low-income folks and folks in marginalized communities think that even more so.”
While there are ample examples to justify distrust, MillerTravis warns communities it’s dangerous to remain on the sidelines when decisions are being made. “If you are not sitting around the table, you are on the menu. If you don’t want to be carved up, you better show up,” she said. “And when you show up, you’ve got to bring your A game.”
Miller-Travis works both sides of the equation to promote productive stakeholder engagement. Step one: make sure community members get the information they need to effectively participate and not just “rail at the microphone.” Step two: remind decision-makers to be “willing and open” to respond to what they learn.
That’s not pie-in-the-sky. A volunteer program in West Atlanta shows that an informed and involved community can get results.
Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Inc. (CRK) is a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and protect the river’s watershed. With support from a variety of organizations, CRK’s neighborhood water watch engages community volunteers in the Atlanta area to collect water samples from tributaries to the Chattahoochee River in order to track and remedy pollution. The program is in its eighth year and boasts more than 100 volunteers.
CRK received an environmental justice grant from the EPA in 2017 to support and expand ongoing neighborhood water watch activities in West Atlanta, a historically disadvantaged community with a disparate share of polluted streams. Over the years, the water watch has helped reduce e coli levels in West Atlanta’s biggest stream, Proctor Creek, by 40 percent. “It’s really about empowering people ... and giving people a voice who traditionally have not had a voice and been disenfranchised,” said Mike Meyer, director of the neighborhood water watch program. “The community being educated about these issues has really gotten the attention of our government.”
E coli is the primary pollutant found in West Atlanta streams. One of the main sources is a “spaghetti system” of old and leaking sewer lines that were illegally connected and don’t appear on any maps, said Jason Ulseth, technical programs director with CRK. That makes tracing pollution back to its source very difficult and “not something that’s been a high priority” for the powers that be.
“There’s just not enough water quality monitoring being done by the government agencies,” Ulseth said. “They’re underfunded, understaffed and don’t have the resources to do the comprehensive monitoring and research necessary to track the many sources of pollution that we’re able to find.”
The neighborhood water watch changes the game. When the samples collected by volunteers show a pattern of pollution, a CRK team wades the stream to pinpoint the source — handing the location to the city on a silver platter so it can be prioritized and fixed as soon as possible.
“The city typically responds very quickly,” Ulseth said. “We have built a good relationship with city staff and they know that our data is valid.”
A new California law — SB 1000 — takes environmental justice to another level by requiring cities and counties to embed environmental justice into their general plan. It is the first statewide environmental justice law in the country.
Cities and counties must identify disadvantaged communities (low-income areas with inequitable burdens from pollution and other environmental hazards), set goals and develop policies to address inequitable burdens, and help disadvantaged communities meaningfully engage in decisions that affect their environment.
“One of the things is really just making sure there’s an awareness of what environmental justice even is,” said Tiffany Eng, a program manager with the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA), which supported the legislation and developed a toolkit to help cities and counties respond. “Some people have already been doing this, but some people have not. SB 1000 now requires you to consider (environmental justice).”
The law gives jurisdictions a fairly free hand in deciding how to comply. “There’s not a lot of prescriptive things in terms of you have to include this particular policy, but it does say you have to include community engagement in your plan,” Eng said.
The law, which went into effect at the start of 2018, already seems to be making a difference. “What we’ve found is that community voices have been lifted up way more in conversations about land-use planning than before when you didn’t have an environmental justice element,” Eng said.
Brad Broberg is a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in business and development issues. His work appears regularly in the Puget Sound Business Journal and the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.