August 6, 2020

Broken pipes, broken promises

Author: Special to The Oregonian/OregonLive

By Christen McCurdy for
The water crisis on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation can be traced to decades of patchwork repairs, neglect and broken promises.
This summer, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, residents were once again advised not to drink water from their taps without boiling it first, after ancient water pipes broke for the third time in three years.
The dual threat of water woes and pandemic, explains former tribal council member Carina Miller, illustrates how tribal governments and their relationship to the federal government are still misunderstood. To fully understand the Warm Springs water emergency, you have to go back decades.
To Miller and many others, treaties, and the federal government’s penchant for breaking them, are at the core of the Warm Springs water crisis.
The water treatment plant at Warm Springs is about 40 years old, and some of the other water infrastructure dates to decades before that. Louie Pitt, director of governmental affairs and planning for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said he has seen pipes made of wood and clay, materials he didn’t know were even used for plumbing.
Water systems with older infrastructure are more likely to experience what experts call “low-pressure events” or “no-water events.” The latter is an obvious problem, and the former automatically triggers boil water notices because, when the outward-pushing pressure inside the water main is lost or diminished, there is risk of contaminants entering the water. Pitt is exasperated. “We should have invested 30 years ago,” he says.
Like many people on the 1,019-square-mile reservation in north-central Oregon, Pitt currently has enough water for regular showering and hygiene, but his family boils any water for consumption. Pitt and his wife also get water from natural springs. When the tribes ceded land to the Oregon Territory in 1855, the tribes retained rights to gather resources such as fish, berries, and water off the reservation in locations throughout the state.
“They take their empty bottles and head out there,” Pitt says. “The old-timers knew where the springs were.”
When the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, whichincludes the Paiute, Wasco, and Warm Springs tribes, relinquished 10,000,000 acres of land to the Oregon Territory, they signed a treaty that said the federal government would be responsible for infrastructure upkeep.
On non-tribal land, drinking water infrastructure is built and maintained by municipal governments. Typically, they pay for this utility by taxing residents or metering and charging them for water, or both taxing and metering combined. Meanwhile, state environmental bureaus regulate cities’ water quality.
When it comes to reservations, however, tribes own their own water systems, and infrastructure and water quality issues are managed by a patchwork of federal agencies: the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s clear to see that this is one of those things that falls in a gray area where it really wasn’t thought through,” Miller says. “How do we have mechanisms for sovereign nations that operate higher than a state jurisdiction, but have to also operate like a local government and have those models of revenue and built-up capital accounts?”
The situation goes beyond complexity, though, Miller adds. The water problems illustrate what Miller and others see as a clear strategy of termination. The authors of federal tribal policy, she says, as well as the people who passed these laws, “had no intentions of tribes existing into this century.”
Miller is referring to the tribes’ original treaty with Oregon’s territorial government. But she’s also talking about the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, which authorized some federal agencies to enter into contracts with, and to make grants directly to, federally recognized tribes — and gave tribes authority over how those funds should be used. T