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Warm Springs citizen and local fly fishing guide Alysia Aguilar gathers clean drinking water from one of the 219 fresh water springs at Rattlesnake Springs, June 27.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

Whenever their home water supplies begin to run dry, Alysia Aguilar and Elke Littleleaf hop into their car and begin a familiar drive north from their house on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

The 25-kilometre route passes through the arid hills of central Oregon, looking out on the volcanic peaks of Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters as it winds toward the shores of the Warm Springs River. Here, in the sparse quiet of eastern Oregon, Rattlesnake Springs spills out through a roadside pipe.

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The confederated tribes of warm springs is one of the only communities to pull their drinking water from the Deschutes river. The part of the river the tribe has access to for drinking water is highly polluted from the urban communities and agriculture up river.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Aguilar and Mr. Littleleaf, who are local fishing guides, fill bottles from its flow. It’s what they use to drink and brush their teeth.

“When you taste this water, no other water will taste the same to you. It’s real, true water,” says Mr. Littleleaf.

Authorities say the tapwater in Warm Springs is safe. But bathe in it, and “our skin burns. It itches,” says Ms. Aguilar. “I’ve lost a lot of hair.” She boils the tapwater even to wash countertops.

Virtually no one trusts the Warm Springs water. Sometimes, they say, it smells like algae. At other times, it has the odour of rotten eggs.

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Chico Holliday, general manager of the Branch of Public Utilities for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, shows the much-needed repairs inside the water treatment building and the patchwork system they have created to keep it running.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

The community’s four-decades-old water treatment plant has been plagued with problems. In 2019, a boil-water notice continued for three months in some parts of the reservation. The community has at times been forced into communal showers. It hasn’t always been clear that enough water is available to fight fires.

The lack of trustworthy water for Indigenous communities is a problem familiar to Canadians – 26 communities across the country still have boil-water advisories in effect.

But for the Warm Springs and other tribes across the U.S., some change is coming. President Joe Biden’s administration has dedicated billions of dollars from its massive infrastructure spending to improve water and sewage services for tribal nations, including US$3.5-billion allocated to Indian Health Services, which is responsible for piped water delivery and sanitation services for Indigenous homes. More funds are expected from other sources, through the Inflation Reduction Act, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Reclamation.

It’s a sum that “is definitely historic” said Heather Tanana, a University of Utah legal scholar who is a citizen of the Navajo nation.

Scholars say access to safe drinking water and reliable sanitation is a problem for nearly half of Indigenous people in the U.S. But the COVID-19 pandemic, Prof. Tanana said, brought new attention to health issues on reservations and long-standing problems with safe water.

The new funds will “move us forward like never before,” she said. “Many tribes never thought they would get that significant commitment.”

The Warm Springs have now secured US$28-million toward building a new water treatment plant. Its design process is already 30 per cent complete.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel for us,” said Chico Holliday, who runs public utilities for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. “If it’s new construction, there’s plenty of money for it.”

Yet whatever light has emerged has also newly illuminated the scale of the problem, and the immensity of the gap between what is needed and what even the new funds can achieve. Infrastructure upgrades bring new and sometimes higher expenses for maintenance and more technically sophisticated workers.

The Warm Springs, for example, don’t just need a new water treatment plant. They need millions of dollars to refurbish their existing plant while a replacement is built. They need millions more to replace a water line that lies exposed in a creek, vulnerable to rocks and anything else that might puncture it. They will need even more to run the expensive new treatment plant once it enters operation.

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Millions of dollars is needed to refurbish Warm Springs' existing plant while a replacement is built and millions more is needed to replace a water line that lies exposed in a creek.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

The current plant’s monitoring system runs on a Windows 95 computer salvaged from a landfill, which is turned on by making a hotwire connection between two electrical cables. Testing equipment shows that the water meets federal standards. But boil-water warnings have been so frequent that few are willing to depend on its safety.

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According to Holliday, most of their system runs from manual adjustments from employees. However the digital portion of the system is so outdated it will only run on Windows '95.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

Even the tribe’s administrative offices rely on water that is trucked in. Large parts of an old elementary school have become a warehouse, halls filled with immense volumes of donated water packed onto pallets. Dan Martinez, the Warm Springs tribal emergency manager, hasn’t consumed the tapwater in years. If the water smells off, why trust it?

“I won’t even give it to my dogs, to be honest,” he said.

The Warm Springs reservation is 2,600 square kilometres, roughly half the size of Prince Edward Island, but home to only 5,100 people. Beneath its expanses of scrubland and palisaded cliffs, the signs of neglect are obvious.

A sewer cover in front of the reservation boarding school, whose brick structures stand as a monument to a traumatic past, reveals a metal water pipe that intersects the sewer opening. It may be a century old.

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Holliday and his team use these vintage parts to keep things running at the water treatment plant.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

“Way before my time,” said Mr. Holliday, shaking his head as he peers into the sewage hole, which is lined with river rock. “I’m just stuck trying to correct everything.”

Elsewhere, the reservation has been connected by a patchwork of pipes made of wooden staves, asbestos cement and Orangeburg pipe, 19th-century technology that fashioned conduits from wood pulp, asbestos and tar. Some of those pipes have been removed in recent years. Others remain.

“I quit trusting the water probably over 25 years ago,” said Wilson Wewa, a member of the Warm Springs Tribal Council.

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Wilson Wewa, Tribal elder and member of the Tribal council for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

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The halls and classrooms of the old elementary school on Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs reservation now house stocks of clean drinking water.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

Efforts to confront the problem have encountered numerous obstacles, including a lack of accurate maps to show what is buried where.

“It’s just been one thing after another,” Mr. Wewa said. He likens the Warm Springs water system to a garden hose patched so many times that much of its surface is now covered in electrical tape.

He worries about agricultural chemicals in the Deschutes River, which is the source of water for the Warm Springs. He worries about the carcinogenic effects of the chlorine used to clean that water. He worries about the eczema he began to notice on the tribe’s younger people beginning a full quarter-century ago.

And he worries about a June Supreme Court decision, which found that the U.S. federal government has no duty “to take affirmative steps to secure water” for the Navajo Nation.

It’s not yet clear how that decision will affect other tribal nations. But Mr. Wewa is concerned.

“Who is going to help us?” he asked.

Tribal nations typically don’t charge members for water, partly because of complications in the legal status of reservations and partly because they don’t want to. Warm Springs elders have insisted: “The water is a gift from the creator. You’re doing wrong when you’re selling water,” said Mr. Wewa.

Even the influx of money under the Biden administration goes only partway to resolving the chronic underfunding of Indigenous water infrastructure, said Prof. Tanana.

Infrastructure cash can build new things. “But to make sure they don’t fall into disrepair, and to empower the local tribal community to be able to manage them long term – that still needs to be addressed,” she said.

For Mr. Holliday, the biggest problem is how to keep up a frail system. “There’s no real dollars for existing infrastructure,” he says.

That’s likely to create even greater complications in coming years. Operations and maintenance costs are expected to be three times higher for the new water plant, which will require workers with much more sophisticated technical credentials.

Mr. Holliday began as general manager of public utilities a half-decade ago. Within his first six months, a steel and concrete water main blew up in a creek. The water pressure, 10 times that in a car tire, “just ripped it like a sardine can,” he said. Two days later, an evaporative lagoon flooded.

An electrical fire at the water plant last year brought new problems. The plant was quickly brought back into service, but its exterior remains charred. Its replacement is years away.

For those who live in Warm Springs, that means water anxiety is unlikely to ease any time soon.

Ms. Aguilar and Mr. Littleleaf say they will stick with Rattlesnake Springs. “We’re just going to come out here every week and get our water,” says Ms. Aguilar, “because it’s something we can trust.”

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Little money is available to maintain and repair a frail system, such as this unrepaired fire damage at the Warm Springs Reservation Water Treatment Plant.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

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Aguilar says she will continue coming out to Rattlesnake Springs because she can 'trust' the water here.Kari Rowe/The Globe and Mail

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