A short drive from Portland, thousands of people, a rural health clinic, businesses and senior housing are without safe tap water, while some places don’t have running water at all.
The story is familiar, especially for Warm Springs Emergency Manager Danny Martinez. He has scrambled to serve 3,200 people’s basic needs on a moment’s notice before, notably last summer when a similar water crisis gripped the area. Martinez wondered then where a fire might start, and how firefighters would put it out with no pressure in the reservation’s water system.
But the boil notice issued last Thursday is different, Martinez said, because the situation is much worse.
“It’s reservation-wide. Right now, 60% of the reservation is in the category of low water pressure. And obviously, of a number of concerns, is COVID-19 and the lack of sanitation,” Martinez said.
Some 19 cases of the virus have surfaced on the reservation in the last week, according to community radio station KWSO, which is owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and provides public information on behalf of the tribes.
“A temporary fix that was made last year cannot keep up with the volume of water usage of the Agency area. A break near that repair occurred, causing a loss of water pressure to the system,” KWSO reported Sunday, adding that repairs are expected by Friday this week.
But Martinez said he’s planning emergency operations for weeks longer than that if needed, and repair timelines like this have been extended before.
Last summer, the main line break near Shitike Creek meant that parts of the reservation were under a boil water notice for more than three months. Now, there’s at least a 22-mile stretch with emergency water needs, Martinez said.
“We are doing our best to provide drinking water,” he said, but that’s just the start of cascading consequences, like fire hydrants not functioning, and in some places, no pressure to run sinks, showers and toilets.
Over the weekend, his team of mostly volunteers reopened a drinking water distribution center out of an old school building. Martinez said he is working with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to get portable showers and bathrooms distributed as best he can.
Meanwhile, public utilities managers are pleading with tribal members to conserve what little water remains in the reservoirs. On Saturday, Warm Springs public utilities manager Travis Wells led an email to tribal members with an all-caps warning: “WE ARE IN A CRITICAL STATE OF EMERGENCY WITH THE AGENCY WATER SYSTEM!”
Wells admonished some community members for watering their lawns.
“As of this notice, we are barely maintaining levels in the reservoirs and with excessive misuse you create undue hardships for everybody,” he wrote.
The water problems in Warm Springs go back many years, and don’t come down to one pipe, or even one water system. The drinking water treatment plant dates back 40 years. Other infrastructure is old, but not as old as an 1855 treaty with the United States that formed the reservation, and what would become the state of Oregon. The United States gained around 10 million acres for just $200,000, in exchange promising certain government services to the Wasco and Warm Springs tribes.
Some 165 years later, tribal, federal and state leaders are negotiating again about who is accountable for basic services and costly infrastructure on the reservation. Those negotiations appear to have stalled after a funding summit hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency last year. Meanwhile, legislation sponsored by Oregon’s Democratic senators has been sitting in a committee since it was introduced. The Warm Springs Tribal Council has turned to private foundations for help, and last year opened a fund to crowd source donations.
Warm Springs elder Arlita Rhoan said she doesn’t trust what comes out of the tap, even when there isn’t a boil notice in effect. She’s long gotten her water from a natural spring more than 15 miles from her home.
“It’s hard. I can’t drink our own water. And so, what I’m drinking is bottled water, or we go to the spring,” Rhoan said.
She was diagnosed with liver cancer in May, just as an outbreak of coronavirus struck the reservation. Her doctor told her to stay in as much as she can, in the home she shares with a husband, two grown sons and a 15-year-old granddaughter.
So far, the virus hasn’t touched their lives, except for the fear and isolation, and now, the added stress of a boil water notice. As of Tuesday, her house was one of the lucky ones in that regard: They still had pressure for the plumbing.
But even as Rhoan described the sadness of the last few months, her laugh bubbled up.
“That’s just me being myself,” giggled the 82-year-old.
“People say, ‘Arlita, how can you be happy when you have cancer?’ I said, ‘I’m a believer, and the Lord is taking care of me, and giving me some joy. I need it. That’s what helps you heal,’” she said.