In 2000, the city of Yelm was home to 3,289 people. Today it’s population is just under 10,000. That’s a remarkable amount of growth for what used to be a small farm town far from I-5.
Now it’s sprouting big new subdivisions of tightly packed single-family houses with perfectly manicured lawns. These perfect developments rise cheek by jowl with areas of much older, smaller, more modest homes – homes on much bigger lots, with yards one might politely describe as more informal.
All over Yelm the contrast between old and new is acute. There’s a Walmart, and just a little further down the state highway that bisects the town, there’s Stewart’s Meat Market, run by the third and fourth generation of its founder’s descendants. Even early on a weekday afternoon, there’s a line at the counter. People come from near and far to buy fresh local beef, pork and lamb, as well as sausage and smoked meats made with vintage secret recipes. Stewart’s represents the old soul of Yelm and its surrounding rural community.
But there is pressure for growth and change – and, not surprisingly, resistance to growth and change.
The most significant act of resistance was an appeal of a municipal water permit that would accommodate growth. That appeal wound its way to the state Supreme Court, and then to the Legislature. The Legislature created a path to resolving it, which is now being followed. But today, Yelm has the capacity for just 267 additional water connections.
We will spare you the long and complex history of watershed planning and water law, and skip to the interesting part:
Our glacial heritage created deep, powerful underground rivers that underlie much of Thurston County. They flow directly into Puget Sound. They are hundreds of feet below the groundwater that feeds our rivers and streams. Drawing from that deep aquifer rather than using shallower wells mitigates nearly all the threat of reducing the water that feeds the rivers. Switching to using this deep water source, plus buying some farmland, retiring its water rights and restoring the land would be enough to provide the “net ecological benefit” required to get Yelm’s water rights expanded for growth.
Yelm already recognized the importance of the switch, and drilled wells into that deep aquifer years ago. In fact, Yelm has been a progressive pioneer in water management and wastewater treatment. It installed a Class A wastewater treatment system in 1990, and hooked it up to the town’s septic tanks. In 2001, the city became the first in the state to use highly treated reclaimed water to irrigate school grounds, ball fields, median strips, parks and other facilities. Purple pipes carry this water all over town, and as it soaks into the ground it helps replenish the ground water that is vital to the health of the nearby Nisqually River. The result is that in spite of tripling its population, the city of Yelm uses the same amount of water it did 20 years ago.
It was both ambitious and admirable for a town Yelm’s size to take such a progressive, earth-friendly approach to its water issues. Sadly, it was punished rather than rewarded. Their deep aquifer wells, drilled years ago, remain idle until a new permit is issued. But with a new law, a new plan, and a path towards approval of a new water rights permit application, the lid may soon be lifted on the town’s growth.
Right now, its city government is preparing for that, and for the surge of growth that is likely to follow. Mayor J. W. Foster, the city council, and city administrator Michael Grayum are working on an economic development plan that includes a branch campus of South Puget Sound Community College paired with a business incubator. They are anticipating construction of a Yelm bypass road in 2021 that will reduce congestion on State Route 507, freeing downtown from daily gridlock. This will make a coherent downtown plan with strong design standards worth pursuing.
The city also has created a task force on homelessness and how to expand its rudimentary, volunteer-driven social service system – an important challenge in a town in which 24 percent of households had less than $25,000 in annual income in 2016.
But the most difficult challenge will be for Yelm to preserve its farm town heritage – its old soul – as new subdivisions and fast food franchises spring up like mushrooms. Maybe they should consult the proprietors of Stewart’s Meat Market. They might have a secret recipe for preserving a local tradition for many generations.