Bend Bulletin - New water treatment plant in the works for Warm Springs as system continues to fail

January 27, 2023
Bend Bulletin - New water treatment plant in the works for Warm Springs as system continues to fail

In mid-2019, the water delivery system on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation failed spectacularly. Burst pipes and broken water pumps combined to shut down the system, leaving around 3,800 residents of the area without safe drinking water for months on end.

It has taken some time for the wheels of bureaucracy to make amends, but after nearly four years, progress is being made — funding for a new water treatment plant has been secured and the design process for the facility is in progress, according to Marshall Cohen, public affairs specialist for the Indian Health Service, an agency that provides health services to members of federally recognized tribes and Alaska native people.“We are targeting to have the design/build contract documents complete by the end of the year,” Cohen said in an email. “Following that, solicitation and construction of the replacement water treatment plant is expected to take approximately 30-36 months if conditions are favorable.”

The $23 million in funding that has been designated by the federal government for the new treatment plant can’t come soon enough for residents of Warm Springs.

The reservation has been dealing with notices to boil water before using it for nearly four years.

The initial notice in 2019 lasted for 10 weeks.

Repair work showed that many of the pipes in the system were made of terracotta, their life expectancy having expired years ago. Then in mid-2020, while the tribes were in lockdown and battling COVID-19 outbreaks, another notice lasted seven weeks. During each episode, residents had to queue for bottled water and showers.

In November 2021, during a visit to the reservation, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, described the situation as “unacceptable and unconscionable,” declaring that the federal government would take responsibility for the situation.

But the problems took another turn for the worse in March of last year when a fire broke out in the Warm Springs water treatment plant due to a faulty transformer, causing an estimated $75,000 in damage, and prompting another system shutdown of nearly two weeks.

The water failures continue periodically, forcing officials to order residents to boil water on different parts of the reservation. Another notice was in place over the past week across most of the reservation.Danny Martinez, emergency manager for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said contamination of the water supply was detected a week ago, prompting the order to boil water before drinking it.

“We have been dispensing water, about 1,000 gallons of water a day,” said Martinez. “We are not taking any chances, if the water is brown, dirty, or doesn’t look right.”A ray of hope for the tribes emerged in August when the Environmental Protection Agency informed the Indian Health Service that it would fully fund a new water treatment plant. An agreement between the two was signed in October.

The health service is providing $13.6 million and the EPA’s contribution is $10.3 million.

Nearly all of the funding is the result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

In addition to the water treatment plant replacement project, the tribes are also seeking funding for the rehabilitation of the existing treatment plant so it can remain in working order from now until when the new plant is finished, said Cohen.

Indian Health Service “and EPA are engaged with the tribes to provide technical assistance in the form of contingency planning in the event of an extended failure of the existing water treatment plant,” he said.

Meshach Padilla, a spokesperson for the EPA, told The Bulletin that the plant is now in the planning and design phase.

“Considering the age and condition of the existing water treatment plant, the design, construction, and completion of the new water treatment plant is a priority for all involved and moving forward as rapidly as practical,” he said.Martinez, who oversees the emergency management water distribution center in Warm Springs, said a steady stream of visitors still come by on a regular basis to pick up water when there are system shutdowns.

Because COVID-19 is still a concern on the reservation, the distribution team asks that residents wait in their cars, which requires volunteers to haul the heavy water jugs from inside the building.

“They do it politely and professionally,” said Martinez. “And we leave water out at night for those who are working late hours. By the time we come in the morning 400 gallons of water are gone. So it’s ongoing.”

Martinez said some days the team distributes up to 2,500 gallons of water a day. Nearly 5 million gallons of water have been distributed over the past two years, much of it donated by groups in Madras, Bend and other communities in Oregon.

“It’s a daily routine,” he said. “There is a psychological impact now where they just don’t trust (the water). Who would after four years of this?” 

-Michael Kohn

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