Water problems at Warm Springs unacceptable, says Wyden

Date:
November 12, 2021
Water problems at Warm Springs unacceptable, says Wyden

Warm Springs setting groundwork for repairs after passage of Biden's infrastructure bill

Funding to improve water systems on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation is moving closer to reality as President Joe Biden prepares to sign his infrastructure bill next week. The expected passage of the bill has allowed reservation leaders to begin planning an overhaul that would cost tens of millions of dollars.

“Warm Springs got my authorizing legislation in the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore, on the sidelines of a media event this week. “The bill that passed in the House has my bill for the fixes. We will be working to get funds in the end of the year spending bill.”

The Warm Springs water treatment plant, and the associated pipes that deliver water to customers, has failed repeatedly over the past two years, resulting in multiple notices to reservation residents to boil their water before using it. The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are now looking to the federal government to help fund a massive renovation project.

Wyden, along with fellow Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, also a Democrat, visited Warm Springs in October and pledged to help the tribes.

The infrastructure bill contains $11 billion in funding for tribes, a cash pot that Warm Springs hopes to tap next year. Included in the funding is $3.5 billion for tribal sanitation projects.

Other funds in the bill include $3 billion for tribal transportation, $2.5 billion to address Native American water rights settlements, and $2 billion for broadband access on tribal lands.

Projects that could get funded at Warm Springs include the replacement of the 40-year-old drinking water treatment plant and the installation of new underground pipes across the reservation.

Louie Pitt Jr., the director of government affairs and planning for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said plans for system upgrades are gaining strength.

“We are preparing with grant people and others to be shovel ready when the opportunity comes down,” said Pitt. “We are doing the internal things that need to be done.”

Pitt added that the time is past due to start the improvements in earnest.

“Is it too much to ask to have clean drinking water throughout the year?” Pitt said. “Let’s get on it guys.”

It’s not clear how much money will be needed to overhaul and modernize the system. Estimates have ranged from $60 million to $130 million.

How much is needed to overhaul the system is not yet known. Bryan Mercier, northwest regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, estimates the repairs could cost upwards of $60 million. Previous estimates have suggested the total could be upwards of $130 million.

But Mercier adds that the cost will ultimately depend on plans put forward by the tribes.

“I’m hopeful the tribe will develop a long-term sustainable plan that will ensure adequate operations and maintenance funds will be generated to maintain the system after the upcoming investment,” said Mercier. “That may mean metering and a rate structure to generate revenue for the system.”

When could the government cut the tribes a check? Wyden said he hopes to see work begin in 2022.

“I want to start seeing improvements next year,” said Wyden. “This is unconscionable, really unconscionable, that those who lived on these lands for so long would be having these boil your water days. Unacceptable, unconscionable.

By MICHAEL KOHN

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