Emergency repairs are underway to a water system in Warm Springs, more than three weeks after a line break was discovered to be putting human health and wildlife at risk.
But as soon as crews replaced one critical stretch of pipe Wednesday, a different water line broke and a pressure valve blew, prolonging the outages and warnings to boil water for thousands of people on the largest tribal reservation in Oregon.
The latest round of failures will have to be fixed before water can flow to the central campus area, where tribal government, a clinic and many businesses are based, according to KWSO, a radio station owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
The station has been posting daily updates to let people know where to find donated bottled water and showers outside of their homes. Meanwhile, largely unused port-a-potties have lined the streets all month, braced for things to get worse. Tribal officials originally hoped to at least keep non-drinkable water flowing (and toilets flushing), by filling up a reservoir system and relying on that during repairs. But now, the busted pressure valve has completely drained one of those reservoirs, and other neighborhoods have a projected 24-36 hours of water on hand.
Last month the Tribal Council for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs declared a disaster over a drinking water system with deficiencies that have long raised flags with public health agencies and fueled distrust within the community.
In May, chlorinated water was found leaking into a tributary of the Deschutes River called Shitike Creek. Keith Whisenhunt, a civil engineer contracted by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, warned the chlorine can be harmful to fish.
At a public meeting hosted by the Tribe and recorded by KWSO Monday night, he explained the plan to replace about 100 feet of pipe running across the creek.
“What we’re doing now is an emergency repair. It’s not intended to be the long term solution, the permanent fix,” Whisenhunt cautioned. “It’s intended to buy the community two or three years to go through a planning process, work with various funding agencies in an effort to identify and plan that project, set up funding and get it constructed.”
At the same meeting, Warm Springs Chief Operating Officer Alyssa Macy hinted at the scope of the infrastructure problems.
“There’s a whole lot of stuff out there with our water, our wastewater, our water distribution, our lines that work with our water treatment plant, our wastewater treatment, and our landfill. These are really big cost items and they impact all of us.” Macy said, urging the crowd to conserve water as the reservation works to repair the system.
Macy has said it could cost $40 million to replace the water treatment alone. A spokeswoman for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in an email her office has been in communication with the Tribe, and federal agencies, to discuss resources “for the more than $80 million in overall infrastructure needs for the area.”
In the meantime, KWSO provides daily updates to the thousands of people affected by the immediate disaster — living under boil water notices or without running taps at all.