Thousands of residents of the Warm Springs reservation are once again uncertain if and when they’ll have access to clean running water, following an electrical fire that knocked out a transformer at the drinking water treatment plant on Friday.
Warm Springs tribal member Brutis Baez woke up Monday morning surprised he could still take a short shower and use the bathroom at home.
“But, who knows when that’s gonna end?” Baez said.
By Monday afternoon, his taps were dry.
He’s preparing his family for the expenses and disruptions of no running water. This means paying to put his elderly mother in a hotel room for a few days, even as she prepares for one of the most important traditional feasts of the year. It means buying more costly food in restaurants because cooking and cleaning is such a pain. It means figuring out where to shower every day and arranging transportation to get there. Baez hopes to stay home, which means he’ll have to walk or drive to a line of porta-potties serving his entire neighborhood.
Officials with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have declared an emergency and issued a water conservation notice for the Agency Water system, which serves the most populated areas of the reservation. About 4,000 people are being asked to brace for outages. Pacific Power crews were on-site Monday to remove the burnt transformer with a crane and install a replacement, the Tribes’ head of public utilities Chico Holliday told KWSO on Sunday.
Holliday initially predicted the fire could cause weeks or even months of water outages, but offered a more optimistic, if still indefinite, update to the radio station.
“It wasn’t as devastating as I thought because of the amount of smoke. That [transformer] was arcing off for almost an hour,” Holliday said.
He did not elaborate on how long repairs would likely take, and a Pacific Power spokesperson declined to comment on the timeline.
Tribal officials could not immediately be reached for comment. A water distribution center is accepting donations, including bottled water or gift cards to places where water can be purchased, tribal emergency manager Danny Martinez told KTVZ over the weekend. People interested in donating should call 541-647-9001. The distribution facility is open 9-4 p.m. at 1116 Wasco St., in Warm Springs.
Oregon’s emergency management agency is monitoring the situation, a spokesperson said, but did not provide specifics on state aid.
“The Office of Emergency Management stands ready to coordinate with state and local partners, if asked, to ensure needs are met with all available resources,” Chris Crabb said in an email.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is coordinating with the tribal government, the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Indian Health Service and FEMA, according to EPA spokesperson Suzanne Skadowski.
She said the agencies are “immediately focused on assisting with the Tribe’s short-term needs, while the long-term course of action for water treatment is established.”
The Warm Springs community grapples with water uncertainty as it begins one of the most important cultural events of the year — preparations for the Root Feast. Women gather roots over the course of five days, culminating in a ceremony on Sunday to give thanks for the start of spring, the renewal of first food sources, and for clean water.
Baez, whose mother is an organizer of the feast, said his family is going to make the best of their time together.
“I don’t really look at it like ‘Poor us’ and ‘Oh my God,’” he said. “I am 100% sure [the water problems] are still gonna happen. And every time Indian folks get together, we are still going to have a good time and reminisce.”
Problems with the reservation’s water infrastructure have risked human health and posed environmental concerns for years. More than two years ago, the Tribes convened with federal and state agencies to find money for needed upgrades, but those talks have yet to yield a concrete plan for a new drinking water treatment plant.
A preliminary engineering study to replace the plant is complete, but the specifics of who will pay and how much, are still being discussed, according to Skadowski.
Oregon’s Democratic senators have promised the $1 trillion infrastructure act passed in November will bring water stability to Warm Springs.
Sen. Ron Wyden “is now working closely with Senator [Jeff] Merkley and EPA to ensure adequate resources are appropriated as soon as possible to address this unconscionable situation,” his office said in a statement.
Charging individual users for water has long been a tension point in Warm Springs, and could become an issue related to the infrastructure money. Charging for water has proven divisive on the reservation, even though a rate system is usually a requirement of federal financing programs. The issue could be taken up by the Tribal Council after a slate of councilors faces elections later this month.
This story may be updated.