August 3, 2020

Broken Pipes, Broken Treaties

On the Warm Springs Reservation, residents have been without clean drinking water for three summers in a row. Where is the fix?


Carina Miller knew it was coming.

In May of last year, a water-main pipe burst on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation. For the following three months, residents were advised not to drink water from their taps without boiling it first. The issue subsided after a patchwork repair, but this summer it returned. As if COVID-19 wasn’t challenging enough, the 4,296 residents of Warm Springs must once again contend with the reoccurring emergency of broken pipes as well.

“We have places [on the reservation] where people can’t wash their hands,” says Miller, who served on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Tribal Council when the water infrastructure problem grew into a crisis. Now a research analyst at Warm Springs Community Action Team and a Democratic candidate for Oregon State Senate district 30, Miller says seeing tribe members without water during a pandemic is undeniably scary. As of Monday, the virus has sickened 181 Warm Springs residents. Among those, 115 have recovered and three person have died.

Yet the predictable way crises like these unfold adds to Miller’s frustration: Initial reports throw poverty and broken infrastructure into sharp relief, followed by a brief frenzy of media coverage, followed by more failure by the state and federal government to resolve the problem. “The water is just the surface of things that need to be addressed in our community,” Miller says. “And there’s been these moments in time where our issues are heightened just for a little bit, but you only see the surface symptoms — not the root causes.”

Carina Miller boils water to clean her young son’s dishes at her home on the Warm Springs Reservation on July 17, 2020. (Photo/Leah Nash)

The dual threat of water woes and pandemic, explains Miller, illustrates how tribal governments and their relationship to the federal government are still so misunderstood. It’s important to hear from people in their homes who have been immediately impacted by this compounded crisis, but to understand the Warm Springs water emergency fully, you have to go back decades.

The water treatment plant at Warm Springs is about 40 years old, and some of the other water infrastructure dates to decades before that. Louie Pitt, the director of governmental affairs and planning for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said he has seen pipes made of wood and clay, materials he didn’t know were even used for plumbing.

Water systems with older infrastructure are more likely to experience what experts call “low-pressure events” or “no-water events.” The latter is an obvious problem, and the former automatically triggers boil-water notices because, when the outward-pushing pressure inside the water main is lost or diminished, there is risk of contaminants entering the water. Pitt is exasperated. “We should have invested 30 years ago,” he says.

Johnson Bill, with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation Emergency Management team, helps to distribute potable water to reservation residents on July 17, 2020. (Photo/Leah Nash)

Like many people on the 1,019-square-mile reservation in north-central Oregon, Pitt currently has enough water for regular showering and hygiene, but his family boils any water for consumption. Pitt and his wife also get water from natural springs: When the tribes ceded land to the Oregon Territory in 1855, the tribes retained rights to gather resources such as fish, berries, and water off the reservation in locations throughout the state.

“They take their empty bottles and head out there,” Pitt says. “The old-timers knew where the springs were.”


“We Need to Hold Our Ground”

To research analyst Miller and many others, treaties, and the federal government’s penchant for breaking them, are at the core of the Warm Springs water crisis. When the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which includes the Paiute, Wascoe, and Warm Springs tribes, relinquished 10,000,000 acres of land to the Oregon Territory, they signed a treaty that said the federal government would be responsible for infrastructure upkeep.

On non-tribal land, drinking water infrastructure is built and maintained by municipal governments. Typically, they pay for this utility by taxing residents or metering and charging them for water, or both taxing and metering combined. Meanwhile, state environmental bureaus regulate cities’ water quality.

When it comes to reservations, however, tribes own their own water systems, and infrastructure and water-quality issues are managed by a patchwork of federal agencies: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s clear to see that this is one of those things that falls in a gray area where it really wasn’t thought through,” Miller says. “How do we have mechanisms for sovereign nations that operate higher than a state jurisdiction, but have to also operate like a local government and have those models of revenue and built-up capital accounts?”

The situation goes beyond complexity, though, Miller adds. The water problems illustrate what Miller and others see as a clear strategy of termination. The authors of federal tribal policy, she says, as well as the people who passed these laws, “had no intentions of tribes existing into this century.”

Hazen Bruised Head, with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation Emergency Management team, helps to distribute potable water to reservation residents on July 17, 2020. (Photo/Leah Nash)

Miller is referring to the tribes’ original treaty with Oregon’s territorial government. But she’s also talking about the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, which authorized some federal agencies to enter into contracts with, and to make grants directly to, federally recognized tribes — and gave tribes authority over how those funds should be used. The law is framed as a way to give tribes more autonomy, but many believe the federal government has used this legislation as an excuse not to uphold its treaty obligation of providing infrastructure for tribes.

“I feel like, although we need to find these long-term mechanisms and put them in place, we also need to hold our ground and hold people accountable who never did put the resources into the community that we were promised,” Miller says.

In July, the Supreme Court ruled that Oklahoma must honor a treaty from nearly 200 years ago that designates the eastern half of the state as reservation land. Lawyers for the tribal groups involved in McGirt v. Oklahoma say the impact of the ruling is likely to be relatively narrow, as no land ownership changed hands. Pitt says he hasn’t spoken with tribal attorneys, but as far as he can tell, the rights of tribes living on Warm Springs are unaffected.

Still, many see the decision as a win for Native Americans.

“Once in a while,” Pitt says, “out of that mile that you gave up, you get a good inch or two back. [The Oklahoma tribes] got a foot.”


‘A Serious Band-Aid’

EPA spokesperson Bill Dunbar says water-quality issues are more common in public water systems that lack the means to repair or fund operational improvements like the ones Warm Springs needs. On other tribal lands, residents have also faced similar water safety challenges. Some Native fishing villages in Alaska have dealt with boil-water notices for years. In the 1990s, nitrates from agricultural runoff polluted the water supply on the Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello, Idaho. In response to that situation, multiple agencies worked together to create a water utility for the area tribes.

In July 2019, the Oregon legislature earmarked $7.8 million in Oregon Lottery funds for water infrastructure repairs on the reservation. But last month, state officials said those funds aren’t coming, due to a sharp decline in gambling revenues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-July, the Oregon Emergency Board did approve $3.5 million in aid to the reservation.

Pitt calls the $3.5 million “a serious Band-Aid.” He hopes it will at least get the tribe off the boil-water notice. A comprehensive repair will cost closer to $30-$40 million, according to a spokesperson for Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. In December, Merkley, along with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, introduced the Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act of 2019, which amends a previous tribal infrastructure bill to cover more territory. That bill passed out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on July 29, but still needs to go before the Senate before a vote.

The bill doesn’t include a fiscal impact statement. But whatever the cost, says Wyden, it would be “a drop in the bucket compared to the billions that has been bestowed on the tiny fraction of 1 percent that has done so well on all these [coronavirus aid] packages.”

Louie Pitt, Director of Government Affairs and Planning for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation, at his office in July 2020. (Photo/Leah Nash)

The bill has been sitting in committee since December, and both senators say they’re looking for any way they can to move it forward. “This isn’t complicated,” says Wyden. “The water conditions at the Warm Springs Reservation are morally repugnant and they are the direct result of years and years of failure of the U.S. government to uphold its treaty rights.”

While Wyden and Merkley seek a vehicle for the big infrastructure bill, the federal government has released two grants to Warm Springs. On July 8, the Warm Springs Housing Authority secured a $900,000 grant from the federal Indian Community Development Block Grant Imminent Threat award program, which was part of the funding allocated by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March. Those funds will be used to “rehabilitate six units for quarantine purposes and overcrowding reduction,” as well as to make improvements to the Warm Springs Housing Authority’s office building. And days after the state declared that it would release some housing aid to the reservation, Wyden and Merkley announced that Warm Springs would receive a $269,000 grant from Housing and Urban Development’s Indian Community Development Block Grant program to repair its main water line.

But people on the ground in Warm Springs and in neighboring communities aren’t waiting for outside assistance. This summer, locals have organized mutual aid efforts, including the McKenzie River Gathering Foundation’s Chúush Fund. (“Chúush” means “water” in Sahaptin, the language spoken by several Northwest tribes, including the Warm Springs tribe.) Launched last summer, the fund offers direct aid to the tribe and has thus far raised close to $100,000. Another crowdfunded campaign, created by a group of Portland-based Cherokee tribe members, pays for deliveries of food and bottled water to the Warm Springs Reservation as well as to a struggling group of Yakama Nation fishers on the Columbia River. And the Central Oregon Black Leaders Assembly has brought water to the reservation as well.

Miller’s organization, Warm Springs Community Action Team, was also distributing fresh produce once a week, as well as cleaning supplies and educational materials for children. (That program went on a two-week hiatus in late July due to rising coronavirus case counts on the reservation.) And on the side of the WSCAT office building, hydro panels — a kind of solar panel that absorbs moisture from the air and uses sunlight to convert it into clean drinkable water inside the unit — were recently installed. It’s not nearly enough to support the whole community, but it’s something.

“We can’t just continue to react,” Miller says. “We have to be proactive and have these solutions in place.”


Lead photo: Water bottles to be delivered to residents of the Warm Springs Reservation in July 2020. (Photo/Leah Nash)

About the author

Christen McCurdy

Christen McCurdy (@CMcCurdyPDX) is a journalist in Portland, Ore. She has written for Street Roots, Pacific Standard, Bitch, Willamette Week, and other publications, and served as the news editor of The Skanner from 2015 to 2019.