52 families on Pine Ridge will finally have access to running water

(Update on World Water Day, March 22, 2024)

Our Mni Wiconi (Water is Life) water line connection program on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation will soon ramp up once the frozen ground on the Great Plains of South Dakota thaws. This will allow our Oglala Lakota contractor to resume digging six-foot-deep trenches and running water lines from the main service water line, which runs across the reservation, to homes without running water.

Since July 1, 2023, nine homes have been connected to the Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply System (the largest Native American/Tribal water system in the U.S. with a service area of 12,500 square miles, equivalent to one-sixth the total area of South Dakota) service line.

Running Strong field coordinator Dave Lone Elk, who oversees the program from our field office on the reservation Tipi Waste Un Zanipi (Wellness Through a Good Home), noted that a couple of years ago, his father, Ken Lone Elk, set a goal to connect the Pine Ridge reservation to water.

“It was his intention to let it be known that ‘water is life’ and that it plays an everyday purpose for our people on the reservation,” said Dave. “The goal is dear to the Lone Elk family since we have also known the hardship of acquiring water to our home and having to haul it from miles away.

“Our water program is always accepting applications, and the people are still applying with the hopes that they will have water soon,” says Dave, adding that in addition to the nine water connections completed since July 1, there are currently 32 households on the list of applications.

“We have also received 12 new applications since the start of 2024, and there is no doubt we will continue to receive more,” said Dave.
“It is my new goal to keep the water program going for as long as possible because the need is always there. There is always a new family trying to get a home or a family who has been without water for years because no one else will help them.”
Among those who received a water line connection in the winter of 2023 was Dawn F. of Pine Ridge, from a household of five, including two children under 18.

For the last few years, Dawn had been hauling water from 20 miles away from an improperly installed private well contaminated with heavy metals, including uranium, deeming the water undrinkable. They used that water for showering and washing, and they have been buying bottled water for drinking.

Dawn had been trying to get water for several years through the tribal program, and in December 2023, Running Strong connected her home, giving her and her family the gift of clean water.

Dawn’s project included installing a hydrant, laying 740 feet of 1 ½ inch PVC water line, digging a meter pit, and using a road boring machine to dig underneath a road.

“I am very grateful for the water connection and appreciate what Running Strong does for the Pine Ridge Reservation,” said Dawn.

Another, Tedine P. of Porcupine, had been without access to water on her property for her and her family of seven when the pump on her well broke three years ago.

She had been getting water from an older rural hydrant that was malfunctioning. We installed a new hydrant for her and her family and a new water line connecting to the home, ensuring they wouldn’t be without running water.

“I would like to thank the Running Strong program, who recently got my home hooked up to the Rural Water System in our community,” says Tedine. “It’s a blessing not to worry about frozen hose and water to our house.

“My family and grandchildren are so thankful to have this blessing before Christmas.”

After all these years of working to bring clean, fresh, safe running water to every family on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Running Strong for American Indian Youth® is on the verge of doing just that.

“We can now see the end of the trail!,” says Running Strong co-founder and Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, who grew up on the reservation.

Billy recently commented that “Today I feel blessed – and relieved – to be able to tell you that only 52 homes on Pine Ridge currently need access to running water!”

And today, that number has actually dropped to 49 with three more homes connected to the main service water line which runs across the reservation in July.

John Long of the Wakpamni District needed a connection for his new home to the Oglala Sioux Rural Water Supply System main service line located nearly 1,100 feet from his home site for his household which includes another adult and an 8-year-old child.

Stephanie Provost of the White Clay District near the community of Oglala also needed a connection for her new home site and after contacting the Indian Health Service and private contractors she learned about Running Strong’s Mni Wiconi program through word-of-mouth for her household which includes three adults and an 11-year-old child.

And Peggy Sanchez of the Wounded Knee District on White Horse Creek whose home was under renovation is now “move-in ready” reported our Oglala contractor on the reservation, Sam O’Rourke of Badlands Enterprises.

Each of these households also received a 1,000-gallon septic system which enables them to use their indoor plumbing to wash dishes in their kitchen sinks, flush toilets and bathe and shower in their own bathrooms.

Running Strong has fought to bring safe, clean water to the reservation for decades, starting in the 1980s when we began delivering water by the truckload to fill the most urgent needs. Soon after that we started drilling hundreds of deep water wells to serve households, and even entire communities.

In 2012, we started our Mni Wiconi (Water is Life) program and to this day we have connected more than 300 houses to the OSRWSS main service line.

For generations, the Oglala Lakota people living on the reservation have struggled for access to clean, fresh water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, bathing and gardening.

“Living without ready access to clean, fresh water has been a nonstop crisis for these families,” says Billy. “It leaves them constantly struggling with life’s most basic tasks.”

Many of these 49 families have been waiting on the Indian Health Service list for years in the hopes of one day having running water at their home, relieving them of the burden of having to walk hundreds of yards to their nearest neighbor’s home to fetch water or drive several miles to the nearest community water collection site.

“These last 49 families only have us,” notes Billy. “No one else is coming to help.”

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