The city of Yelm has been trying to receive access to increased water rights since 1994 and it looks like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, or maybe just a glint reflecting off the Nisqually River.
There are currently several thousand water connections being used within the city, with only a slim 175 currently available, Yelm Mayor JW Foster told the Nisqually Valley News.
In order to receive more water rights, the municipality had to prove that its current plan for withdrawing water for its use from the watershed did not have any adverse ecological impact on the watershed. This was done through a mitigation package, which was preliminarily reviewed by the Washington state Department of Ecology and Department of Wildlife.
Once the preliminary review was complete, with the departments signaling it had merit, the city of Yelm went to complete its net ecological benefit analysis, which would finalize the whole package.
“Our biologists took a look at our mitigation strategies out at the Smith Farm, at Tri-Lakes and on Yelm Creek and ran it through a number of different habitat models to make sure that the improvement in the habitat outweighed the deficit by taking the water out,” said Yelm Community Development Director Grant Beck at the April 13 council meeting where he briefed members on the progress of the project.
Once Beck and his colleagues were sure they had the best product possible — an undertaking that took over a year — the city finalized the package with the state earlier this month.
“We submitted our updated mitigation package to the Department of Ecology,” Beck said. “A tremendous amount of work went into the package, although it looks a lot like the mitigation package we submitted to Ecology that was approved and was referred to by the Department of Wildlife as the ‘gold standard of out-of-kind mitigation’”
The mitigation package Beck referred to was submitted back in 2011, but a Washington State Supreme Court decision, known as the Foster decision, caused the municipality’s request for more water rights to be rejected.
In part, the Foster decision made it so that out-of-kind ecological mitigation — like habitat restoration as a means to offset river and stream impairment due to water use — was not a valid mitigation strategy for the application of new water rights.
Now however, a new decision has opened out-of-kind mitigation back up, as long as applicants go through a mitigation sequencing project to show there’s no other option to mitigate water-for-water or drop-to-drop.
“The mitigation plans have to have a net ecological benefit to the watershed,” Beck said. “That term was not well-defined in the law, so we took our care with the water right team and the mitigation strategists to make sure that we ran it through a number of different types of models that looked at ecological benefit and to make sure that it would pass the test.”
With new possibilities on the horizon, the city picked itself up from its fall back in 2011, dusted itself off, and submitted a brand new package with the hopes of renewing its status as that gold standard of mitigation.
“We took a belt-and-suspenders approach and ran our proposals through a number of scientific models and we’re confident it’s another gold standard,” Beck said in a previous interview with the Nisqually Valley News. “We care and we were proud of our first submission, and now we’re proud of our most recent. We’re doing the right thing. And we’re proud because that’s our culture here.”
Currently, the city of Yelm has requested access to 920 acre feet of resources, a number that — as of 2011 — would serve the people of Yelm for 20 years. That projection has increased because the municipality has become more efficient with its use of water.
In a previous interview with the Nisqually Valley News, Beck said that since 2005, the city has cut the water consumption per person by half.
The Department of Ecology has indicated they will be ready for a report of examination as early as this summer, Beck said at the meeting.
Mayor JW Foster asked Beck if the 920 acre feet would provide enough water to the city even if its population increases to 20,000 by the year 2045, as projected by the Washington state Growth Management Act.
To this question, Beck gave a resounding “yes.”
Eric Rosane contributed to this report.