Schools, businesses and homeowners in Warm Springs are into their second week of a water crisis that is forcing residents to boil water before consumption, the most recent in a string of water problems plaguing the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
A boil water notice initiated on May 30 remains in effect until further notice, due to loss of pressure in the distribution system, according to Alyssa Macy, chief operations officer for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The tribal council was expected to address the issue in meetings earlier this week, but results have not been announced.
Warm Springs — one of Oregon’s poorest communities with poverty rates double the state average — has long struggled to maintain its infrastructure, create jobs and provide affordable housing. Access to clean and safe drinking water also compounds a health crisis in an area suffering from soaring rates of diabetes and cancer.
Warm Springs has endured four similar boil water notices in the past six months. Aging infrastructure and the challenging fiscal environment have prevented completing repairs to the water distribution network.
The current problem is the result of a main line break that occurred at a section of pipe where it crosses Shitike Creek. The cost of the repair is not yet known, Macy said. About 1,200 water services connections have been affected in the community of 3,800 people, she added.
“This is like a game of chess; we are moving pieces around; it could get worse,” Macy said.
The main line break forced the closure of Warm Springs K-8 Academy for two days last week. Food is being prepared at school kitchens in Madras, and water tanks have been hooked up to toilets to keep them flushing, according to Ken Parshall, Jefferson County School District superintendent.
At the nearby Indian Head Casino, the Cottonwood restaurant will remain closed until the problem has been mitigated, said Belinda Chavez, director of marketing for the casino. The Tule Grill, another eatery at the casino, will stay open and has extended its operating hours to accommodate customers for breakfast.
“Our intention is to remain open. We do have support services in place. We have a lot of employees here, and everyone is adapting well,” said Chavez.
The Warm Springs Health and Wellness Center declared a state of emergency for the facility as a result of the water main line break, but as of Thursday, the clinic remains open with full services, according to a statement by Indian Health Services.
“Services will continue to be reevaluated in the event that there is a limited water supply,” according to the statement.
Repairing the water system involves fixing the water main line, as well as two failing pressure reducing valves located before the water pipe reaches the creek, said Macy. A shut-off will be needed when the repairs take place.
“Both projects need to be fixed concurrently. They go hand in hand,” Macy said.
Firefighters and first responders have activated an emergency operations plan to deal with the unreliable water supply, Macy said. Water tenders, also known as tankers, can be used in case the water flow stops entirely, she said.
“The priority is access to water for the community and enterprises. We have gone through this before, so the plans are already in place,” Macy said.
Macy compared the situation in Warm Springs — where one-third of families live on less than $25,000 a year — to that of other small, financially challenged communities.
“It’s a combination of deferred maintenance over the years by our trustees and lack of internal funding to support critical infrastructure improvements,” Macy said. “The BIA and the Indian Health Service have not made those investments.”
The Bureau of Indian Affairs says Warms Springs is responsible for any water infrastructure repairs, due to its participation in the Tribal Self Governance Act, which Warm Springs joined in 2013.
“The BIA installed the piping many decades ago, but the responsibility for maintaining it was transferred to the tribe. The BIA does not supply funds for repair,” said Kevin Kelly, senior contracting officer for the northwest region of BIA.
“Warm Springs chose to take over the water system. We no longer have the authority to intervene in their internal operations,” he added.
The BIA has supplied portable toilets, bottled water and portable showers for the Warm Springs community, Kelly said.
A funding summit between state agencies and the tribe is expected to take place Wednesday to address several infrastructure problems at Warm Springs, Kelly added.
Randy Nathan — a local business owner whose operations include the Eagle Crossing restaurant and N8TV Adventures, an outdoor recreation tour business — said the infrastructure problems at Warm Springs are partially self-inflicted.
“Water is a symptom of the bigger issue,” he said, adding that the tribal council has not done enough to support small businesses that can create a tax base to raise money for infrastructure projects, he said.
“It’s really difficult to do business today. The committees hinder opportunities for private business. Without business development, our community won’t have money to fix problems like the water.”
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