WELLPINIT, Wash. -– Brush covers a small cement trough, as a creek trickles nearby. The Spokane Tribe of Indians used to drink and bathe in this water during the powwow season. But now, leaves fill the moss-covered trough. It hasn’t been used in years, since a low-tech sewer system was built upstream.
Chamisa Radford remembers playing in the trough as a child. But she says she wouldn’t dare touch the water now.
“We’re destroying our environment, and with that goes the culture and tradition,” says Chamisa Radford, the tribe’s planning and economic development director.
The Spokane Tribe of Indians recently received a $1.5 million HUD Sustainable Housing and Communities grant to help improve housing, transportation and economic activity in the reservation. But it turned out to be quite a fixer-upper.
“We came in with grand ideas about comprehensive planning, leveraging funds, providing transportation, and what we found was our basic infrastructure needs a lot of attention,” she says.
To help with that basic infrastructure, the tribe recently received a Smart Growth Implementation Assistance grant (SGIA) from the Environmental Protection Agency. Technical experts will help tribe members design better water and sewage systems.
That’s because the systems in place now just aren’t working. Down the road and up the creek from the cement trough, an aeration pond serves as the tribe’s sewer system. Two ponds are lined with a rubber sheet. A sprinkler in the middle of each pond helps the liquid evaporate. What’s left is a sludgy goop that can then be treated.
The problem: The ponds sometimes flood into the creek, or the rubber lining breaks. Other times poorly placed septic tanks seep to the surface.
Both the sewage and water systems are patchworked together, says Scott Radford. He’s vice-chairman of Antithesis Research, a Native American nonprofit organization. His group is working with the tribe to help fix its water infrastructure issues.
“It’s not good,” Scott Radford says. “We have pumps that are broken, storage containers that are leaking, pipes that are broken –- so that the water that is supposed to come here is now seeping somewhere else; wells that dry up.”
In the summertime, there are more availability problems than just dry wells. The newly built governmental center is in the center of Wellpinit, a small town northwest of Spokane. Artwork adorns the foyer. Decorative rugs cover the floors. But as nice as this building is, water doesn’t flow from its sinks or fountains when it gets warm outside, Scott Radford says. There’s not enough water pressure. And that has economic consequences.
“It’s actually illegal for the tribe to have workers in the building if there’s no water,” he says. “So, it hurts you, financially, when you have to send people home because you don’t even have water, which is what a lot of the rest of the country takes for granted.”
Because of the way the government doled out funding, the tribe typically takes a Band-Aid approach to making repairs, Scott says. He and his wife, Chamisa Radford, hope to see the community revitalized with the EPA and HUD grants.
“We’re kind of at a blank spot, as far as water or sewer infrastructure, but we get to start anew,” Scott Radford says. “This community hasn’t gone so far down the wrong path that you’re kind of stuck in it.”
Abby Hall is the project’s manager for the EPA. She says the tribe’s water systems must be able to handle stormwater runoff, treat additional wastewater and provide clean drinking water.
“EPA selected this project for receipt of an SGIA grant, in part, because it expects that lessons learned through this project can provide an example of best practices that others may use, given that the water and wastewater challenges in Wellpinit are common for other tribal and rural communities,” Hall says.
The tribe plans to replace the aeration ponds with a wetlands system that will use algae and bacteria to consume the waste. The tribe will look to projects in Idaho that have recently built a much larger wetland waste-disposal system. The Spokane Tribe of Indians traditionally relied on wetlands for food and housing materials.
“It’s trying to look at planning from a different perspective, adding the cultural element,” Chamisa Radford says.
She says the tribe will also tie cultural practices with modern technology to become more energy efficient and independent. Houses will be outfitted with inexpensive geothermal pumps, which will keep home temperatures at a constant 52 degrees year-round. New homes may also be partially buried, a traditional practice, to help conserve energy. A gray-water system will cut down on water use by recycling what goes down the sink into toilets.
Implementation is still down the road, but Chamisa Radford says she is hopeful for a change in the future.
“Right now, it looks like a really worn-down place to live. There’s not a lot of landscaping. There are no sidewalks,” she says. “You can compare it to a third-world country.
“I hope to see a better built-environment,” she says. “One that’s culturally relevant. One that we’re proud in … I think it changes your quality of life.”
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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