Broken Water Main Poses Serious Health, Safety Risk To Warm Springs

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
Warm Springs, Ore. May 31, 2019 10:32 p.m.
Warm Springs COO Alyssa Macy on March 28, 2019.

Warm Springs COO Alyssa Macy on March 28, 2019.

Emily Cureton / OPB

Thousands of people living and working on Oregon’s largest tribal reservation won’t have running water and flushing toilets, again.

On Friday, officials with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs warned of a shutdown that could last "up to a week or longer" due to a broken water main.

Operators discovered the break Thursday, and the Warm Springs K-8 Academy closed for two days as tribal, county and state officials grappled with planning for the outage, distributing water for life's daily needs, and repairing expensive infrastructure, which has long been at risk for failure.

“This is a worst case scenario,” said Warm Springs Chief Operating Officer Alyssa Macy.

The tribal council declared an emergency disaster to allow it to qualify for federal emergency funds. A spokesman for Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said in an email that Wyden’s “staff has been working with the Tribes on the water infrastructure issues and will be part of a meeting on June 12 with tribal, state and federal partners to identify resources to deal with the deficiencies in water infrastructure.”

The longstanding infrastructure problems put human health at risk, according to documents from the Environmental Protection Agency that show the water and wastewater treatment plants operated by the tribe have had significant, unaddressed issues for more than six years.

Related: Elevated Lead Levels In Warm Springs Childcare Building


Recently, scrutiny from federal regulators put pressure on tribal leadership, which started issuing boil water notices regularly to inform users when the system (or its operators) failed to meet federal drinking water treatment standards.

Those notices have gone out four times in last six months alone, according to a press release from the tribe, which has routinely closed the reservation's only daycare. The Early Childhood Education Center closed again this week, and so did the primary school, which serves more than 600 students from kindergarten to 8th grade.

Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools Ken Parshall said after two days of canceled classes, the school is prepared to reopen next week to finish out the academic year, with or without running water. The students and staff will rely on bottled drinking water, a few portable bathrooms like those used in fire camps and military operations, and more old-fashioned portapotties, with portable sinks and hand sanitizer.

“We are going to do food preparation off site, so we don’t have to worry about safety issues,” Parshall said.

The tribe is urging people on the reservation to stockpile water, with an uncertain timeline on when service will be restored.

“This is complicated and major,” texted Macy.

The break occurred under a creek, requiring crews to put in a temporary dam before they can access it.

Besides the school, a slew of other critical places are braced for total outages during repairs: the health clinic, the daycare, the assisted living home for seniors, the jail, the Boys and Girls Club, the museum, casino, and a host of homes, other buildings and businesses south of Highway 26.

Other areas on the more than half-million-acre reservation are being told to continue boiling water.

That drinking water isn’t pumped from a spring or underground source — it’s surface water collected from the lower Deschutes River, which requires intense treatment to mitigate the risk of contaminants like sediment, algae and parasites.

The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs is a sovereign nation, overseen by a tribal council where most members are elected, and several are chiefs with lifetime appointments. The small government navigates the trust system that requires federal oversight for some decisions, but not others.

The EPA put the leaders on notice about its water system in March, saying conditions at a 40-year-old treatment plant violate the Safe Drinking Water Act. The wastewater treatment plant has its own long record of issues. In April, the EPA said that enforcement action, like levying costly fines on the tribe, would be a last resort.