MRG Foundation and Tribes start water crisis fund
When a water main broke on May 31, 2019, in Shitike Creek, it left the Warm Springs Reservation without water for 76 days.
Since then, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have continued to deal with boil water notices, as the pressure in the aging system isn't always high enough to keep the water moving.
Just who's responsible for fixing the infrastructure has been a subject of debate among government agencies, but the MRG Foundation didn't wait. In coordination with the Tribes, the foundation set up The Chúush Fund, and it has raised nearly $500,000 for the Tribes, but $200 million is needed to completely repair the system, said former Tribes COO Alyssa Macy in a video explaining the fund.
"Chúush, or water, is life. It is central to my people and our cultural lifeways," she said. "We pray with it and for it. It flows through our bodies as it flows through the lands. Like you, we can't live without it."
On Tuesday, Oct. 27, Macy, the foundation and others held a webinar to explain the fund and how the broken water system affects not just Warm Springs' present, but its future.
Se-ah-dom Edmo, executive director for the MRG Foundation, explained the nonprofit's 44-year history of funding social, racial and environmental justice.
"And I'm particularly proud of the work we have been doing around lifting up tribal communities," she said.
That includes recognizing tribal sovereignty and giving funding directly to tribes rather than telling them how to use the money.
Then Robert Miller, a law professor at Arizona State University, explained the history of treaty law and how the United States government views tribes.
"Indian people are mentioned twice in the Constitution as citizens of their own governments," he said.
Native Americans did not receive U.S. citizenship until 1942.
Because of the treaties it made, Miller said, the U.S. government is a trustee of Indian people, "and it has voluntarily taken on this responsibility."
He said it has a fiduciary responsibility to took out for the best interests of the tribes as weaker parties in the treaty.
"When the Warm Springs people are without water, .... the things that are going on are unbelievable in the United States," Miller said.
He said it is the duty of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service to be involved.
"So where is the federal government in working on these infrastructure issues that is making life almost impossible?" Miller said.
The Warm Springs Nation "also owes a duty to its citizens to do everything in its power," Miller continued, and that includes putting pressure on the federal government to fix the problems.
"As you can see, this is a really complicated issues," Edmo said. "Warm Springs tribal citizens are also citizens of the state of Oregon. It's more than a dual responsibility to meet the needs of folks who are living at the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Warm Springs, Oregon."
Louie Pitt Jr., CTWS' director of government affairs, said he has worked with Oregon legislators and monitors what the federal government is doing.
"We have a continual push to have the United States live up to its obligations," he said. "Water was one of those."
The state of Oregon recently gave $7.8 million for the project of $43 million the Tribes asked for.
"Their big question at the time was, 'Where are the feds? What happened to your treaty?'" Pitt said.
He added that the tribes are not alone. All of rural Oregon is facing problems with aging infrastructure.
The state of the water system
Travis Wells, the Tribes' public utilities general manager, said between the state and tribal funding, some of the work is getting done.
"We are slowly getting a handle on some of these issues, some of the major issues," Wells said, "... to the point where we can now make sure that folks have access to water. We still don't have the capacity that we need to have."
The Environmental Protection Agency imposed an emergency order on the Tribes but did not provide money to help fix the problems.
Wells said the Tribes are also working on repairs to the distribution system, which he called "antiquated." It was built in the 1970s, and the water treatment plant was built in the early 1980s. Maintenance continues to be a problem.
"I do thank those that have contributed to this fund," Wells said, adding that 100% of the money will be used for getting water online.
The Commissary Project
Then the conversation turned to the future.
Marissa Ahern is working with Warm Springs Community Action Team as project manager on a project that would move the old commissary building on the reservation to the downtown area, creating a small business incubator.
She said the project is "a foundation piece to the future of the Community Action Team."
It's also impacted by the lack of water infrastructure.
"We are moving and restoring the oldest building on the reservation," she said.
The goal is to "set a new precedent for what's possible when it comes to development on the reservation."
The plans include a food truck pod and a commercial kitchen, as well as a co-working space and a conference room, and that it will produce all the energy it needs.
And while rainwater collection and gray water disposal are in the plans, the building needs water.
"This infrastructure issues and the water — the need is so great and, I think, something that needs to be highlighted and adds to the urgency of this issue," Ahern said. "We need that infrastructure for development to occur."
Macy now lives in Seattle, but she is still working "to bring forward the issues that Warm Springs is facing," she said.
She's had the same conversation with lots of people:
"Would there be other communities in the state of Oregon that would be a boil water notice for 76 days?" she asks.
"There was no water pressure, there was not potable water to drink," she said. Toilets didn't work, and there wasn't water for animals.
"To know that your community is going through that and you feel alone is a really challenging thing for any community to face."
Macy said she was appreciative of the MRG Foundation's vision, especially that it gave decision-making power to the tribal government, "to the people who were closest to the issue."
Macy echoed Pitt, saying Warm Springs is not alone in having aging infrastructure that could fail. The crisis could be a lesson for others about what could go wrong and how partnerships and collaborations can go right.
How to Help:
Donations can be made directly to The Chúush Fund at https://www.mrgfoundation.org/donate-the-chuush-fund-water-for-warm-springs/.
Checks may be sent to:
P.O. Box 12489
Portland, OR 97212
They should be made out to "MRG Foundation," with a line in the notes that says "Water for Warm Springs."
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