Understanding Yelm’s Water Rights

By Andrew Kollar dkollar@yelmonline.com
Posted 11/2/17

More than 140 people packed the Yelm Community Center on Monday to attend presentations by water rights experts, hosted by the Thurston County Conservation District. 

Water rights have become an …

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Understanding Yelm’s Water Rights

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More than 140 people packed the Yelm Community Center on Monday to attend presentations by water rights experts, hosted by the Thurston County Conservation District. 

Water rights have become an important topic for residents and city officials to understand. 

Yelm population is predicted to almost double by 2025, according to the 2018 public safety budget presentation, but would be unable to grow any more without more water rights. The city of Yelm is expected to reach full capacity soon as the city only has a little more than 300 connections remaining until water rights would be exceeded.

Out of the 140 people in attendance, two local elected officials — Yelm Mayor JW Foster and Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards — were there, along with Yelm City Council Candidate Terry Kaminski.

Thurston County Conservation District Executive Director Sarah Moorehead said the meeting was important for the district and community.

“It’s a direct response to the community need, we are a community-driven organization, it is something that people have been requesting and wanting and it’s important to have the ability to bring that to folks,” Moorehead said. “I think it is important to folks to get accurate information and be able to have access to folks that have that information and ask their own individual questions.”

Foster said he was surprised at the amount of people in attendance because the meeting lasted over three hours on a Monday night and was full of “dry material,” but noted the importance of understanding the issue. Foster said the issue affects all levels of government from the state Legislature to city government to homeowners.

“It is extremely important for Yelm to come to a better understanding because it impacts us directly and the lawsuit that was filed against our water rights in the Foster Decision ended up having statewide implications,” Foster said. 



The Foster Decision impacts Yelm because the city is joint partners with Olympia and Lacey on the Smith Farm property, an area of water and habitat mitigation along the Deschutes River. When Yelm partnered in the project, city officials expected Yelm to gain more water rights through out-of-kind mitigation such as habitat restoration, to offset impairment to protected rivers and streams. Lacey and Olympia were able to use the out-of-kind mitigation because no one appealed from those cities. In Yelm, however, a citizen appealed, and the state Superior Court upheld the ruling. 

With the intent of gaining more water rights through Smith Farm, Yelm built Southwest Well 1A with a 600,000-gallon reservoir, costing the city $5.4 million. The well remains unused and the reservoir has sat empty because Yelm’s water rights were revoked in the Foster Decision. The reservoir will be used when the system is reconfigured as it cannot tap into the aquifer that it was designed to pump water from unless Yelm receives more water rights. The connections now have to be redesigned to pull water the city already has access to in order to fill the existing reservoir.

Yelm will have another opportunity when the state Senate moves forward with Senate Bill 5239. If SB5239 passes, Yelm could be allowed to gain more water rights through the Smith Farm property through out-of-kind mitigation.

A water right according to the Department of Ecology is a legal authorization to use a certain amount of public water for a designated purpose and be put to beneficial use. There are three different kinds of water rights. The first is through a “claim” that water was used prior to the 1917 Surface Water Law or the 1945 Ground Water Law. The second is through a permit, permission by the state to develop a water right but it is not a final water right. The third is through a certificate, granted when all permit conditions are met and recorded by the county auditor. 

Receiving water rights has proved to be a challenging process for Yelm and many community members in attendance Monday night. Department of Ecology Water Resources Manager Mike Gallagher admitted the process is long and the department is backlogged with applications. 

“If the powers that be say ‘Yelm, you’re not getting any more water,’ then Yelm isn’t going to get any more water and we’ll figure out how to survive as a municipality without growth, that’s just the way it’s going to be,” Foster said.

Foster said he was glad to see the presentation take place in Yelm because it demonstrates that the city is recognized as a regional center for information and the Thurston Conservation was rewarded by hosting the presentation in Yelm with high attendance.

“As mayor I am extremely interested in creating these relationships and you only do that by being present, every person that is important to this conversation, I talked to today and will continue to talk to,” Foster said.

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