Katia riddle / Katia riddle
Louie Pitt Jr. remembers a day four years ago when a valve broke on Oregon’s Warm Springs Reservation. He was in a meeting with the tribal officer when she was interrupted by a phone call.
“The worst situation I spoke of,” she told him, “it’s happening now.”
Pitt is an elder in The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The worst-case situation he describes still happens here. Due to an aging infrastructure system and insufficient funds to repair it, the tribes here have been limping for years with inadequate water supplies. There are often cues telling residents to boil water before consuming it. Sometimes the water from the tap is brown and sometimes nothing comes out.
After President Biden signed a $ 1 trillion historic infrastructure bill on Monday to pave roads, bridges and waterways, among other things, some places will win more than others. This community of 4,000 people hopes that money will be a deciding factor.
As an emergency solution, emergency services have converted an unused school here as a distribution point for clean water. Water is donated, often from nonprofits across the state. The classrooms here are filled with thousands of bottles and jugs of water, neatly lined up like soldiers.
“It looks like a lot, but it’s quick,” says Dot Thurby, who oversees sales.
Every day residents come by to fetch water, and for those who can’t come, Thurby and her team deliver. One day they poured water into Justine Keo’s house, who has a three-month-old baby and 18-month-old twins.
“It’s a real ordeal,” Keo says of the water. Raising three babies is hard work, she says, that is made unnecessarily difficult without running water.
Thurby says the people here are grateful for water deliveries, but she’s still frustrated.
“It’s really hard to see how some people enjoy clean water,” she says, “when they should have clean water in their home.”
That’s what the leaders here hope the Infrastructure Act will eventually deliver. It provides $ 11 billion in funding to local communities across the country. Senators in Oregon prioritized $ 250 million specifically for clean water projects like this one.
Danny Martinez was so happy when the bill passed that he says he cried.
“I cried with joy,” says Martinez.
As the head of the emergency service in the reserve, he has been taking care of water problems for years. He says he and his team have been working to get contracts signed, but admits it will be years before the faucets run clean. There are 60 square miles to supply water and solve decades of problems.
Louie Pitt Jr. says the lack of clean water is only the latest struggle in a long history of problems the tribes have endured, including breaches by the U.S. government of the original treaty signed with the tribes in 1855. Pitt says he’s confident funding can heal the tribal-government relationship – a bit – as it’s an opportunity for the government to deliver on its promise to share resources even though it’s long overdue.
“It only helps you not to turn your great grandfathers into liars,” says Pitt.
Katia Riddle is a freelance journalist.