As a lack of safe running water on the Warm Springs reservation stretches into a fourth week, Oregon state lawmakers on Tuesday approved millions in emergency funding for repairs.
The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs issued a boil water notice on June 25, after drinking water system failures left some residents with no running water at all. The reservation has issued more than a dozen such notices in the last year alone. And, as of July 8, the COVID-19 infection rate on the reservation was 16 times the state average for white Oregonians and more than four times the average for other American Indian and Alaska Native groups across the state.
Oregon’s emergency board unanimously approved $3.58 million from state reserves to start addressing the issue. The money will pass through the Oregon Business Development Department to the tribal government. Due to state budget rules, it must be spent by the end of the year. The aid request originated with Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, whose district encompasses the reservation.
"Today’s action by the Legislature’s Emergency Board doesn’t magically fix the water crisis within the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs but that shouldn’t diminish the important work of today,” Bonham said in a statement.
Last year, he successfully pushed to earmark $7.8 million in state lottery bonds for reservation water projects. Last week, the promise of that money disappeared, as the Bend Bulletin reported.
The next day, Warm Springs’ utility manager Travis Wells sent Bonham a list of critical projects meant to bring the reservation into compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
“These are projects that need to be completed to ensure our communities receive a basic need for clean potable water,” Wells wrote.
Orders from the Environmental Protection Agency have threatened the tribes with costly fines since October.
State Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, joined Bonham in requesting an emergency allocation to replace the lost lottery bonds.
"Few state priorities could be more important than providing drinkable water and working sewers," reads a letter the Republicans sent to the emergency board last week, which cites OPB's reporting for highlighting the dangerous situation.
“These basic and essential needs are absolutely critical to achieving the state’s public health guidelines and for reversing the COVID spike within the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs,” the letter states.
Findley told fellow lawmakers on the emergency board that the allocation they unanimously approved is just a start for meeting the reservation’s overall water needs.
“They are in dire straits. This will bring them to the path of repair. There’s a lot of work to do, but this will certainly bring them out of the boil order,” Findley said.
Thousands of public records obtained by OPB since 2018 show that tribal, state and federal officials have been aware for years of the risks failing water systems pose to human and environmental health in Warm Springs.
“Should it have been fixed years ago? You betcha,” Findley said. “But it doesn’t do any good to go back and lay blame. We have to look forward and say, how do we make this a better place to be?”