Yelm Leads the Way in Statewide Water Mitigation Strategies

cochrane park Having been punished for being a pioneer in watershed management, leaving Yelm with negligible room for growth, City Administrator Michael Grayum presented to the Joint Legislative Task Force on Water Resource Mitigation to champion the City’s progressive and earth-friendly approach to water mitigation, and advocate for the for the citizens and business owners of Yelm. 

“Our economic development is at a standstill without additional water rights and the cost to repair our aging infrastructure will be born on the backs of our current residents,” Grayum told the Task Force. “That’s highly unfair considering most of the current rate payers are residential customers. We need to diversify our tax base but we can’t do that without additional water rights.”

In a 2015 Washington Supreme Court ruling, known as the “Foster Decision,” the Supreme Court rejected the Washington State Department of Ecology’s (WDOE) decision to grant new water rights to the City. The decision revoked the previously granted rights which has contributed to utility rate increases by preventing additional housing and industry in our area.

The current population of Yelm is about 9,200 with the population estimated to grow to 25,000 by 2040 in accordance with the Growth Management Act which requires fast-growing cities and counties to develop a comprehensive plan to manage population growth. With only 208 water connections remaining before growth comes to a complete standstill, the City is no longer accepting subdivision applications.

In 2018, the State Legislature passed Senate Bill 6091 known as the “Stream Flow Restoration Act,” or "Hirst Fix," which authorized the WDOE to create the Task Force on Water Resource Mitigation that will oversee five water rights pilot projects including Yelm. The pilot projects, monitored by the WDOE will use different water mitigation strategies to measure the ecological impact and benefits of each program.

The Task Force will review the treatment of surface and ground water appropriations as they relate to instream flows and fish habitat, to develop and recommend a mitigation sequencing process and scoring system, and to review the Washington Supreme Court decision in Foster v. Department of Ecology, according to RCW 90.94.090.

Pilot projects must improve function and productivity of the affected fish populations and related aquatic habitat, known as the net ecological benefit. The net ecological benefit identified through available data, ecological context and local expertise, according to the WDOE. 

Another innovative part of Yelm’s water mitigation plan is the City’s Water Reclamation Facility which serves as the wastewater treatment facility and the heart of the irrigation system. The facility takes reclaimed water, cleaner than California drinking water standards, and puts it back into the aquifer at Cochrane Park, and distributes it for irrigation at City parks, Yelm Community Schools’ ballfields, and is used for fire flows.

The City is proud to have the first water reclamation facility in the state, built in 1999, which is now the oldest and in need of significant improvements to accommodate growth as required by the GMA, and to provide additional reclaimed water to support the City’s water mitigation plan. The WRF was recently toured by Senator Judy Warnick R-Moses Lake and many other state policy makers on the task force to show the recent progress and future challenges of the facility.

“Yelm is a model that we should be looking at for the rest of our areas,” Warnick told the Task Force. “I was very impressed with what (Yelm) has done and with their future plans.” 

Over a three-year period, the City has replaced many components to keep the current facility functional, including the system control software, distribution system, and eliminated single points of failure but still requires an estimated $27 Million overhaul to manage current and future demand. The City is exploring a variety of options to renovate the facility while keeping utility rates as low as possible for the citizens and businesses of Yelm. Options include a widely used Membrane Bioreactor system, and advocating for State Funding and allow Yelm to be a leader for other innovative treatment options including ceramics and algae. 

“We are willing to be another pilot project,” Grayum said. “We were the first water reclamation facility in the state and we are willing to be an innovator for a system and once again, be used as a model for other cities.”

The City is on track to submit the water rights application to the WDOE by the end of 2019 which is anticipated to be the first water mitigation pilot to submit an application. If the application is approved, Yelm will regain its water rights and open the door for additional housing and new industries to move in, allowing the City to maintain infrastructure, diversify the tax base, and reduce the impact on existing residents and businesses.