Senate bill could unlock millions to fix Warm Springs water woes

A bill that would help Oregon tribes access federal dollars to rebuild outdated water infrastructure systems has been reintroduced to the U.S. Senate.

The Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act was reintroduced on Wednesday by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, according to a news release.

The bill was initially introduced in December 2019, and in July 2020 it was passed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. That was as far as the legislation went — it failed to gain further traction under the previous Republican-controlled senate.

If passed, and signed into law by President Biden, the act could help the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs rebuild an outdated water system that has been plagued in recent years by failing pumps and cracked pipes.

“Boil water notices and crumbling pipes are not acceptable,” said Wyden in the press release. “Congress must do more to bring urgently needed resources to build sustainable tribal water infrastructure that has been neglected for far too long.”

Repairing the water distribution system at Warm Springs, including a new water filtration plant and the network of water delivery pipes, could cost as much as $130 million, according to Chico Holliday, Warm Springs water and wastewater supervisor.

“Hopefully I get to see it in my lifetime,” Holliday told The Bulletin.

The Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act would make Warm Springs eligible to apply for the Indian Reservation Drinking Water Program. The legislation, currently $20 million per year, would increase to $50 million per year under passage of the new act.

On Wednesday, Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland said during her confirmation hearing that she will seek solutions to tribal water challenges.

“We will look at water in a new lens in 2021 when we know climate change is a drastic issue,” said Haaland. “And I hope we can find ways to conserve, recycle, move all those issues forward so that nobody is stuck in a desert without water to drink.”