Public Water Forum Comes to Yelm

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In a world that is 70 percent covered in water, one would think that fresh water would be a readily accessible commodity.

Except it’s not.

According to Karen Fraser, a former Washington state senator who spent time working on water policy in the legislature, about 97.5 percent of all water on the planet is saltwater, and of the remaining 2.5 percent that is fresh water, only 1 percent is available for human consumption.

Fraser is also a member of the Thurston County League of Women Voters’ water study committee, which has developed a series of public meetings in order to study all the ways that water — or lack thereof — affects life in Thurston County.

The next meeting is called “Where’s the Water: Rural Challenges & Solutions.” It will be held at 5:30 p.m., with the program starting at 6 p.m., Tuesday, March 19, at the Yelm Community Center.

“Rural water issues are hugely important,” Fraser said. “Most of the land area of the state is rural. Being the Thurston County League of Women Voters, we want to try to look at the whole county.”

Paula Holroyde, member of the Thurston County League of Women Voters board and facilitator for the water study these forums are part of, said that the group chose Yelm for this particular water meeting because those in the city have practical experience with rural water scarcity.

“We wanted to come to Yelm because we know your history, that you had some real problems with water and have been really creative and worked well together to straighten them out, looking to the future with water, rather than without water,” Holroyde said.

The meeting’s speakers will be JW Foster, mayor of the City of Yelm, who will speak about water resources planning in the city; Larry Schorno, who will speak about agriculture water needs; Mary Verner, program manager for the Water Resources Division at Washington Department of Ecology, who will speak about the nuts and bolts of water rights permits; and Nora White, education and outreach coordinator for Thurston Conservation District, who will speak about voluntary and non-regulatory solutions to natural resource management.

Holroyde said these forums are actually part of a grander plan to update a 2008 water study that Thurston County League of Women Voters finished more than a decade ago.

“We started to upgrade our 2008 water study,” Holroyde said. “After talking to different people in different areas of water, we came to the realization that this was a lot bigger of an issue 11 years later… As we got into this, we found that there was a lot of information that we were learning that the community needed to know.”

So the league and the public have been learning together during the meetings, the first two of which yielded more than 100 guests each.

“We are learning along with the public,” Fraser said. “The forums have been excellent, and very well attended. We have very high-quality and knowledgeable speakers.”

In the first meeting, Fraser said that she learned about the groundwater in Thurston county, and how some areas in the county’s water supply that are experiencing water shortage due to withdrawals and nature alike. She also said the I-5 highway crosses the Nisqually River delta, creating an effective dam on either side. A solution to this problem would be to raise the interstate. 

Fraser said the second meeting was equally informative, starting out with an explanation of the Hirst Decision, which essentially required that counties be responsible for determining water rights regarding water permits for new buildings. Another topic discussed was this interconnectivity of watersheds. Also, recommendations for how to conserve water were discussed.

These meetings covered other minutia within the topics Fraser mentioned.

In addition, Karen Verrill, member of the water committee, and past president of Washington’s League of Women Voters, said the league started in 1920. After the organization helped win the women’s right to vote, it decided that there were other issues it needed to engage in, so the league stuck around.

“We are totally non-partisan and we never support a candidate or party, but we do work really hard on issues and we also do candidate forums,” Verrill said of the league. “In order to take a position in support or opposition to an issue, we have to have done a study that was done nationwide, in our state, or in our county, like the one we are doing right now.”

After this updated water study is complete — the league aims for 2020 — it will go out to all of the members to read, followed by a consensus meeting, where the group reaches an agreement amongst the members as to what position on the issue the organization should take based on the study.

“That [process] gives us a lot of confidence when we are going out to speak for or against an issue,” Verrill said.

The final two meetings will be held at 5:30 p.m., with the programs starting at 6 p.m., on April 2 and May 7 at the Olympia Center.

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