PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland and U.S. senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden visited Warm Springs Friday for a chance to see the reservation’s failing water system for themselves.
Residents on the reservation have been issued boil water notices several times over the last two years. Warm Springs officials say they need to replace the Dry Creek Treatment Facility, a sewage main and a water main.
Plans to replace these pieces of infrastructure are drafted. The problem is finding the money to pay for the work.
“Every family deserves clean and potable and affordable drinking water, but tribal communities are too often left behind in that effort,” Newland said. “Today’s visit makes clear that we need to make investments in water storage, water delivery and water treatment infrastructure.”
Newland, Merkley and Wyden said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal is the solution to the lack of funding.
The $1.2-trillion bill, which is awaiting a vote in the House, would invest $11 billion in tribal infrastructure. Merkley said $3.5 billion of that would go specifically to tribal water infrastructure.
The infrastructure deal would also invest $3.5 billion in the Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Program. Newland said $250 million is specifically dedicated to helping improve drinking water quality and services for tribal communities in Oregon.
Merkley said the funding allocated for Indian Health Services should cover the cost of Warm Springs’ three largest water projects: replacing the water treatment plan, the sewage main and the water main.
Wyden said the issues tribal communities are facing are not happening in affluent communities. He said tribal communities deserve better.
“I want to make this real straightforward. Those who have considered this land their home since time immemorial deserve more than boil your water notices,” Wyden said.
Chico Holliday, public utilities general manager in Warm Springs, said taking U.S. officials on a tour of the water facility Friday was exactly what they needed.
“Just to put the spotlight on the reservation, as seeing all the deficiencies that we have to deal with, and what the projects that we’re doing now and in order to obtain some of those fundings and the requirements from those funding agencies,” he said.
He said Warm Springs is slowly working to tackle necessary projects, but he said they all take time. Even if the infrastructure deal passes, it could be years before Warm Springs can make all the improvements it needs.
Holliday said replacing the sewer and water main will be projects they can accomplish sooner than building a new treatment plant.
For now, Holliday has been fixing what he can to avoid more boil water notices. He’s replaced dozens of pressure reducing control valves. The reservation has also implemented a new water system, which creates drinking water from solar panels. That project was made possible with some funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
Glendon Smith, secretary treasurer CEO for the tribe, said it helps to have U.S. officials bringing more attention to the issues that need to be addressed. He said it feels like they’re not doing it alone.
The visiting U.S. officials said they realize what’s at stake and want to do everything they can to get the Warm Springs community the help it needs.
“All the people of Warm Springs want is all what the people across Indian country and people around the world want, which is the ability to live together in a safe, healthy and fulfilling way in their communities, with clean and safe water,” Newland said.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland also planned on attending the event in Warm Springs, but had to fly to New Mexico for a family emergency.
After the water infrastructure tour in Warm Springs, Newland planned to visit fishing sites along the Columbia River to learn more about ongoing work to secure treaty fishing rights on the river.