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Loss of safe drinking water on Oregon reservation leaves thousands improvising

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The emergency water distribution center on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation serves as many as 900 people a day. People without transportation carry what they can, organizers said.
The emergency water distribution center on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation serves as many as 900 people a day. People without transportation carry what they can, organizers said.
Emily Cureton | OPB

The Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon has been without safe drinking water all summer, and some people have no running water at all. In May, a burst pipe led to a cascade of infrastructure failures. That leaves around 4,000 people improvising for survival.

"I'll go back to being a teacher, hopefully, after this is done," said Dorothea Thurby, a volunteer emergency manager, whose days now revolve around a disaster. 

The preschool where she teaches shut down when the water system failed. Thurby was furloughed. At an ad-hoc water distribution center on the reservation, she does heavy lifting, organizes supplies, and helps keep mobile showers clean. She said her main job, though, is being a leader, supervising youth workers as they work out of an old grade school building. It's where she was once a student. 

"I wish we could make something better out of this place, but right now we have to store all of our water in here," Thurby said. 

The center runs on donations, and it might distribute 3,000 gallons of water a day, plus other supplies like bleach wipes, plastic plates, utensils, and commodes, said Danny Martinez, emergency manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. 

At first, supply donations from all over the Pacific Northwest poured in.

"But they're all hoping that it's resolved today," Martinez said, "And so, when I call them back, they're kind of puzzled by it...You mean you still don't have water, Dan?"

The list of worries goes on. Firefighters can't count on hydrants to work, Martinez said, and "the sprinkler system, the cooling systems, air-conditioning systems, the restrooms, the toilets, everything is affected by lack of water."

Meanwhile, federal agencies have been slow to commit money toward long-term solutions, though the Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to fine the Tribe nearly $60,000 a day, if it doesn't make repairs by October. 

Mobile sinks and showers set up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. In May, a burst pipe led to a cascade of infrastructure failures and the reservation has been without safe drinking water all summer.
Mobile sinks and showers set up on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. In May, a burst pipe led to a cascade of infrastructure failures and the reservation has been without safe drinking water all summer.
Emily Cureton | OPB

In an unusual move, the Oregon legislature stepped in this summer, earmarking $7.8 million in lottery bonds for water and sewer projects on the reservation. The amount is about half of what a Republican state representative from The Dalles, Ore., said he first proposed adding to an omnibus bill.

"Although [Warm Springs is] a sovereign nation, they are also my constituents," said Rep. Daniel Bonham. 

Still, the state lottery bonds won't pay out until 2021, according to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's office.

Nationally, the Indian Health Service has found Native people are nine times more likely to lack access to safe water. 

Tribal and federal officials have said the repairs underway now could potentially restore drinking water in Warm Springs by the end of the month, but that deadline has already been extended several times. 

In the meantime, the bottled water distribution center continues to serve as many as 900 people a day. On a warm morning there last Friday, two teenage volunteers took a break from hauling water around, to chase a yellow butterfly. 

Fifteen-year-old Cajun-Rain Scott giggled as she tried to cup it in her hands.

"Butterflies keep coming around me," she said, adding: "That's good... That means change."

She said summer normally means "having fun with my friends and skateboarding. But I can't do that now because I'm helping the community, and that's more important than skateboarding, so I'd rather be doing this than that." 

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.