On a gravel road in the Dry Creek neighborhood of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, Dorothy Thurby visits the site of a recent waterline break. A pile of mud and pipes is all that remained following days of water leakage.
“This is where the break was,” said Thurby, a staff member for the Warm Springs Emergency Management Team. “They have been working since last week. Water was flooding out on the road. The water was just shooting out.”
The broken pipe under the road knocked out water to more than 80 residents in Dry Creek. A similar scenario had played out in another neighborhood the week earlier. It’s become a frequent occurrence, with neighborhoods going without water for days. In the summer of 2019, there was a stretch of three months when the entire reservation was without potable water.
If this were the norm anywhere else in Oregon, there would be outrage. On the Warm Springs Reservation there is anger too, but little hope for a quick fix. Community members have simply tried to adapt.
“It’s really difficult, you really have to change your normal routine,” said Thurby. “We have elders who can’t lift those five-gallon jugs to flush the toilet. It’s hard to see any community member come to us needing help.”
Cracked Pipes, Failing Pumps
Over the past three years, Thurby and her team members have spent much of their time distributing free water to community members when the system goes down. In summer, her team also sets up portable showers for bathing.
Cracked pipes and pump failures are the source of the problems, as the 40-year-old system has been neglected in the impoverished community. The most troublesome break occurred where the mainline crosses the bed of the Shitike Creek. There have been a few fixes on that break, each one considered a “band-aid” until the Tribes can invest in a long-term solution.
Even when water does flow from their taps, frequent low-pressure incidents make the water unsafe to drink unless boiled. Some have given on showering in it, choosing instead to drive 13 miles to Madras for a hot shower at the Plateau Travel Center, a truck stop owned by the tribes.
“Lots of us have learned to adapt and survive through this, it’s just our way of life now,” said Starla Green, a trainer at the non-profit Warm Springs Community Action Team, located around the corner from the Emergency Center.
Green is a trainer on a food cart project. The cart utilizes a self-contained, solar-powered water unit, but agency water is still needed for washing. For the small business, the occasional water shutdowns create added expenses and additional work when bottled water is needed.
“It’s an extra hundred dollars a month in winter when we have to use bottled water,” said Green.
Brewing for Decades
The water crisis at Warm Springs has been brewing for decades. The piped distribution network dates to the 1970s but a lack of funds limited regular maintenance and upgrades. By the mid-2010s, the pipes were crumbling, leaking, and bursting across the reservation.
A blame game further stalled the maintenance checks. The Warm Springs tribes insist that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an arm of the U.S. government, neglected the system and are responsible for repairs. The BIA says responsibility for the water infrastructure was handed over to the tribes decades ago.
“Technically the tribe is responsible for the public water system,” said Bryan Mercier, Northwest Regional Director for the BIA. “We feel morally obligated and we try to help but there is no program for us to pay and maintain public water systems on behalf of tribes.”
Mercier said most other tribes in the U.S. have rate structures and charge users for water. Warm Springs, on the other hand, gives out water for free to community members. Without payments for water, the utility on Warm Springs has no funds for repairs.
The Cost of Free Water
Tribal members are split on whether or not to start charging for water. It has been free forever and many see it as a right afforded by their treaty with the U.S. government. Cost is also an issue in a place where poverty is widespread and unemployment is said to be north of 50%.
“It has always been controversial,” said Chico Holliday, water and wastewater supervisor for Warm Springs. “Members have a right to free water, we understand that, but we have to pay for the chemicals and electricity to treat that water. It costs us 8 cents to make one gallon of drinking water.”
Some community members might change their minds if given a tour of the aging water treatment plant at Warm Springs. Located at the end of dirt road and close to the banks of the Deschutes River, the plant looks every bit of its 40 years of existence.
Inside, water is purified and moves through a series of filtration tanks towards a pump room. At that point, a good deal of it streams onto the floor from the top of a broken pump. A small white bucket on the ground makes a futile attempt to collect the deluge of water. Two other pumps are functioning, but if one goes down there will be trouble again.
Holliday said the facility needs $3.2 million for a full modernization effort. But if he had his way, he’d lobby for $30 million to have it fully replaced.
“We need vehicles, we need tools, we need spare parts and equipment,” said Holliday. “But we’ve got what we’ve got.”
Those costs are just the tip of the iceberg. Another $100 million is needed to fully modernize the pipes and other water infrastructure across the reservation, said Holliday. That includes ripping out the existing terracotta and Orangeburg pipes and replacing them with modern pipes made from PVC and steel.
Millions in the Pipe?
The upgrades may seem like a pipe dream for now, but funding could be on the way with state and federal assistance.
The Oregon state legislature has already approved $7.8 million in funding for water infrastructure projects at Warm Springs. Federal funds could add more if the U.S. Senate passes new legislation introduced by Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
The bill, called the Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act, could make $50 million available every year to tribes across the country. Warm Springs Reservation would be eligible to tap into those funds.
Holliday points out that it was the U.S. government that placed the three tribes (Wasco, Tenino, and Paiute) on the Warm Springs Reservation in the 1850s, and should assume responsibility for getting the tribes clean water.
“It would be nice if the federal government would say, how much do you need? How soon do you need it? And start working from the beginning until the end,” said Holliday. “Hopefully in my lifetime. It would be a blessing to see that.”
Permanent Solution Needed
Back in the center of Warm Springs, workers prepare food at the Twisted Teepee, the food cart business set up for training purposes by the Community Action Team. A group of community members turn up to buy fry bread, Indian burgers and luckameene, a traditional salmon chowder.
Flint Scott, a member of the emergency management team, sits down for a meal, huddled against the cold. When asked about the water crisis at Warm Springs he says it’s high time for the state and federal government to step in and find a permanent solution.
“The government is supposed to be responsible for our health care and other issues,” said Scott. “It would take an act of Congress to get anything done.”
But he is also reflective and believes his people have weathered the storm with steely resolve and an appreciation for life. For community members, Clean water for hand-washing, cooking and cleaning is no longer taken for granted, said Scott.
“We’ve been through a lot since Shitike River break,” said Scott. “Just having a flushing toilet makes you appreciate the basics.”
Michael Kohn is a reporter for The Bulletin in Bend.