No Safe Drinking Water On Reservation Leaves Thousands Improvising

Aug 10, 2019
Originally published on August 12, 2019 10:47 pm

The Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon has been without safe drinking water all summer, and some people have no running water at all. In May, a burst pipe led to a cascade of infrastructure failures. That leaves around 4,000 people improvising for survival.

"I'll go back to being a teacher, hopefully, after this is done," said Dorothea Thurby, a volunteer emergency manager, whose days now revolve around a disaster.

The preschool where she teaches shut down when the water system failed. Thurby was furloughed. At an ad-hoc water distribution center on the reservation, she does heavy lifting, organizes supplies, and helps keep mobile showers clean. She said her main job, though, is being a leader, supervising youth workers as they work out of an old grade school building. It's where she was once a student.

"I wish we could make something better out of this place, but right now we have to store all of our water in here," Thurby said.

The center runs on donations, and it might distribute 3,000 gallons of water a day, plus other supplies like bleach wipes, plastic plates, utensils, and commodes, said Danny Martinez, emergency manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

At first, supply donations from all over the Pacific Northwest poured in.

"But they're all hoping that it's resolved today," Martinez said, "And so, when I call them back, they're kind of puzzled by it...You mean you still don't have water, Dan?"

The list of worries goes on. Firefighters can't count on hydrants to work, Martinez said, and "the sprinkler system, the cooling systems, air-conditioning systems, the restrooms, the toilets, everything is affected by lack of water."

Meanwhile, federal agencies have been slow to commit money toward long-term solutions, though the Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to fine the Tribe nearly $60,000 a day, if it doesn't make repairs by October.

Mobile sinks and showers set up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. In May, a burst pipe led to a cascade of infrastructure failures and the reservation has been without safe drinking water all summer.
Emily Cureton / OPB

In an unusual move, the Oregon legislature stepped in this summer, earmarking $7.8 million in lottery bonds for water and sewer projects on the reservation. The amount is about half of what a Republican state representative from The Dalles, Ore., said he first proposed adding to an omnibus bill.

"Although [Warm Springs is] a sovereign nation, they are also my constituents," said Rep. Daniel Bonham.

Still, the state lottery bonds won't pay out until 2021, according to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office.

Nationally, the Indian Health Service has found Native people are nine times more likely to lack access to safe water.

Tribal and federal officials have said the repairs underway now could potentially restore drinking water in Warm Springs by the end of the month, but that deadline has already been extended several times.

In the meantime, the bottled water distribution center continues to serve as many as 900 people a day. On a warm morning there last Friday, two teenage volunteers took a break from hauling water around, to chase a yellow butterfly.

Fifteen-year-old Cajun-Rain Scott giggled as she tried to cup it in her hands.

"Butterflies keep coming around me," she said, adding: "That's good... That means change."

She said summer normally means "having fun with my friends and skateboarding. But I can't do that now because I'm helping the community, and that's more important than skateboarding, so I'd rather be doing this than that."

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon has gone without safe drinking water all summer. Actually, some people don't have any running water. In May, a burst pipe led to a cascade of infrastructure failures. As Oregon Public Broadcasting's Emily Cureton reports, this has left thousands of people scrambling.

EMILY CURETON, BYLINE: Blue jugs teeter on a fork lift at the Warm Springs Reservation two hours southeast of Portland. Behind the wheel is a teenager in a cowboy hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORKLIFT OPERATING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Woah.

CURETON: A bump in the gravel driveway nearly tips his load of plastic bottles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FORKLIFT MANEUVERING)

DOROTHEA THURBY: Yeah, so he got taught how to drive the forklift approximately three months ago (laughter).

CURETON: Dorothea Thurby is supervising the young volunteers, mostly high schoolers. They've gotten a crash course in emergency management - organizing bottled water, lifting heavy supplies and cleaning mobile showers.

THURBY: I'll go back to being a teacher hopefully after this is done.

CURETON: But Thurby's preschool shut down when the water system failed. She was furloughed. Her summer has revolved around an ad hoc water distribution center. It runs on donations.

THURBY: So I'm kind of in my own mind thinking, like, what if we don't have enough? Say we run out, what are we going to do?

CURETON: The Indian Health Service has found that nationwide, native homes are nine times more likely to lack access to safe water. But in this case, federal agencies have been slow to commit money for a long-term fix. Oregon has earmarked about $8 million in bonds, but those will take years to pay out. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to fine the tribe nearly $60,000 a day if it doesn't make repairs by October.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So you just want ice...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...A bag of ice? You don't have to sign it out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK.

CURETON: The failed water system serves more than 1,300 homes, a daycare, two schools, a home for seniors and a medical clinic. Danny Martinez, the emergency manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, runs the water distribution center.

DANNY MARTINEZ: We give out about 3,000 to 3,500 gallons of water every day.

CURETON: Martinez says donations of supplies like paper plates, bleach wipes and waterless toilets poured in from all over the Pacific Northwest at first.

MARTINEZ: But, you know, they're all hoping that it's resolved today. And so when I call them back, they're kind of puzzled by it. After 30 days, you mean you still don't have water, Dan?

CURETON: Now the boil water notices are into a third month. The system has been on the brink for years. Every burst pipe is a contamination risk to the whole system. The list of worries goes on. Firefighters can't count on hydrants.

MARTINEZ: The sprinkler system, the cooling systems, the air conditioning systems, the restrooms, the toilets, everything is affected by lack of water.

CURETON: Martinez joins two teenage volunteers who are taking a break from hauling jugs around to chase a butterfly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Laughter).

CURETON: Fifteen-year-old Cajun-Rain Scott says butterflies are a good sign.

CAJUN-RAIN SCOTT: Butterflies keep on coming around me. That's good. That's good. You know what that means? That means change.

CURETON: What would you normally be doing with your summer, Cajun-Rain?

SCOTT: Having fun with my friends and skateboarding, but I can't do that now because I'm helping the community. And that's more important than skateboarding, so I'd rather be doing this.

CURETON: Tribal and federal officials say repairs underway now could potentially restore drinking water by the end of the month. But that deadline has already been extended several times. For NPR News, I'm Emily Cureton in Warm Springs, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S "MICROBE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.