For more than two years, the people of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs—Oregon’s largest reservation—have lacked consistent access to clean drinking water and water pressure. As a result, more than 60 percent of the community cannot regularly shower, do laundry, drink from the tap, or provide adequate water for livestock or crops. The cause? A series of breaks in the reservation’s main water lines, where needed repairs and upgrades would cost an estimated $200 million.
“We wanted to figure out how to provide assistance and what role to play, while also respecting tribal sovereignty and following the lead of The Tribes,” said Friends of the Columbia Gorge Executive Director Kevin Gorman.
In October 2020, Friends, along with seven other leading Pacific Northwest conservation organizations, formed the Water for Warm Springs Campaign. The coalition partnered with The Tribes, the Warm Springs Community Action Team, and Seeding Justice (then known as the MRG Foundation)-—a nonprofit social change organization that had established The Chu’ush Fund in August 2019 to address this need. The fund accepts donations from individuals and foundations, which are then transferred directly each month to Warm Springs residents to assist with their emergency health needs.
“Through our collective megaphone, we could reach out to people and build awareness about the immediate crisis, while also raising money for the fund,” Gorman stated. “Jointly organized webinars, social media, and press outreach have been key.”
Friends and its allies have also helped advocate at both the state and federal levels for policy solutions to aid the reservation in addressing its underlying infrastructure problems and restore a reliable water system. Friends, for instance, has urged the public to write to U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley to support passage of the Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act, which would authorize $30 million annually for tribal water projects in Oregon.
“This would be the best long-term solution,” Gorman noted. “Sustainable access to clean drinking water is a fundamental human right, as well as essential to the future of the Warm Springs community.”