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Tribes hope infrastructure law means they'll finally get clean drinking water

Dot Thurby with some of the thousands of water bottles the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs distributes to members every day.
Dot Thurby with some of the thousands of water bottles the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs distributes to members every day.

Louie Pitt Jr. has a clear memory of a day four years ago when a valve broke on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon. He was in a meeting with the tribal operations officer when she was interrupted by a phone call.

"The worst situation I was talking about," she told him, "it's happening now."

Pitt is an elder in The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The worst case situation he describes is still happening here. Due to an aging infrastructure system and insufficient funds to fix it, the tribes here have been limping along with inadequate water supply for years. There are frequent notices directing residents to boil water before consumption. Sometimes the water coming out of the tap is brown, and sometimes nothing comes out at all.

With President Biden on Monday signing a historic $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law to fortify roads, bridges and waterways, among other things, some places stand to gain more than others. This community of 4,000 people is hoping the money will be a gamechanger.

As a stopgap measure, emergency services here have repurposed an unused school as a distribution point for clean water. Water is donated, often from nonprofits around the state. The classrooms here are filled with thousands of bottles and jugs of water, neatly standing in rows like soldiers.

"It looks like a lot, but it goes fast," says Dot Thurby, who oversees distribution.

Residents come by every day to pick water up, and for those that can't come Thurby and her team deliver. On a recent day they dropped water at the home of Justine Keo, who has a three-month-old baby and 18-month-old twins.

"It's a real pain," says Keo of the water. Parenting three babies is hard work, she says, made unnecessarily harder without running water.

Thurby says people here are grateful for water deliveries, but she's still frustrated.

"It's really tough to see some people be happy over clean water," she says, "when they should have clean water at their house."

That is what leaders here hope the infrastructure law will eventually provide. It allocates $11 billion in funding for native communities across the country. Senators in Oregon prioritized $250 million specifically for clean water projects like this one.

Danny Martinez was so happy when the bill passed, he says that he wept.

"I cried because of joy," Martinez says.

As the manager for emergency services on the reservation, he's been handling the water problems for years. He says he and his team have been working to line up contracts, but acknowledge that it will still be years before the the taps run clean. There are 60 square miles to deliver water to and decades of problems to address.

Louie Pitt Jr. says lack of clean water is just the latest struggle in a long history of problems the tribes have been forced to endure, including violations from the US government of the original treaty signed with the tribes in 1855. Pitt says he's hopeful this funding can heal - a bit - the relationship between the tribes and the government, as it's an opportunity for the government to make good on the promise to share resources, even though it's long overdue.

"It's just helping you folks not make liars out of your great grandpas," says Pitt.

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