Native Americans without clean drinking water get help from infrastructure bill The Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon has been without clean drinking water for years, the just-passed infrastructure bill promises to fix that.

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

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With the passage of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, the U.S. is poised to make historic investments in roads, bridges and waterways. Some places stand to benefit more than others. From Oregon, Katia Riddle reports on one community anticipating that this money will be a game-changer.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: The day four years ago when a valve broke is one that Louie Pitt Jr. remembers clearly. He was in a meeting with the tribal operations officer.

LOUIE PITT JR: Then she got a call right in the middle of the council report and then says, well, that worst-case situation I was talking about - it's happening now.

RIDDLE: Pitt is an elder in the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, about 100 miles southeast of Portland. The worst-case situation he describes is still happening. With aging valves continuing to fail and not enough money to fix them, there are frequent boil water notices. Sometimes the water is brown. Sometimes nothing comes out of the taps at all.

DOT THURBY: So if you step into this first classroom...

RIDDLE: Dot Thurby works for emergency services on the reservation. She's walking through an old school building. It's been repurposed as a distribution point for donated clean water. It's carried not by pipes but humans.

THURBY: And these five-gallon jugs are 42 pounds each, so imagine lifting all that.

RIDDLE: Thousands of water jugs and bottles stand neatly lined up in these classrooms, waiting like soldiers in an army.

THURBY: So if you're looking down the hallway, we have a good 35 crates right here. And each crate holds 30 of these big five-gallon jugs.

RIDDLE: It's too much math for me.

THURBY: Yeah, me, too. It looks like a lot, but it goes fast.

RIDDLE: People stop by every day to pick up water. They're grateful. But Thurby says sometimes the community's grace makes the situation even more painful for her.

THURBY: It's really tough to see some people be happy over clean water when they should have clean water at their house.

RIDDLE: Thurby and her team also deliver water to a lot of folks here. That's what she's doing on this day for a mom of three.

THURBY: We're just dropping off some water.

JUSTINE KEO: Thank you.

THURBY: You're welcome.

KEO: We were almost out.

THURBY: Yeah (laughter).

RIDDLE: Justine Keo is a teacher, but she's at home on leave with her 3-month-old baby and 18-month-old twins. She says she needs water delivered nearly every day.

KEO: It's a pain. It's a real pain in the butt.

RIDDLE: Keo's standing outside her house, patiently loading everyone up in the car.

KEO: I mean, down here we've gone with water so much where we couldn't even shower because there was no water. So - and with babies, like, you have to clean them.

RIDDLE: When the infrastructure bill passed, Danny Martinez says he cried.

DANNY MARTINEZ: I cried because of joy.

RIDDLE: Martinez is the emergency services manager here. He's been working for years, Band-Aiding (ph) the water problem. The infrastructure bill contains $11 billion in funding for Native communities. And in Oregon, senators prioritized $250 million specifically for tribal water projects like this one. Martinez says they've been working to line up contracts already.

MARTINEZ: Yes, it could be shovel-ready.

RIDDLE: It's unclear exactly when the money will show up. And he says with nearly 4,000 people and 60 square miles to reach, it'll be years before these pipes run clean.

PITT: We're made by the creator to be able to survive some really kind of tough situations.

RIDDLE: Louie Pitt Jr. says the U.S. government has consistently violated the treaty signed in 1855 with the tribes here. But he's hopeful this investment could heal the relationship a bit, with the government making good on that original commitment to share resources.

PITT: So just helping you folks not make liars out of your great-grandpas.

RIDDLE: It's a long time coming, says Pitt. For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Warm Springs, Ore.


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