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November 16, 2000

Little Yelm sets big environmental goals — and meets them

Skillings Connolly

Yelm, a city of 2,600 residents located just 65 miles south of Seattle, has a new claim to fame. It now has the distinction of becoming the first city in the state to achieve 100 percent reuse of its reclaimed wastewater.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Over the last decade, Yelm was been faced with rapid growth, limited water resources and the need to protect the declining salmon runs in the Nisqually River. These daunting pressures would be enough to throw any small city into a state of crisis, but Yelm decided to up the environmental ante and completely eradicate wastewater discharge into the river and outlying areas.

In 1992, the city began construction on a new Septic Tank Effluent Pump (STEP) system and aerated lagoon treatment facility, with provisions for a discharge into the Centralia Power Canal and an additional emergency discharge directly into the Nisqually River. Because the Nisqually is one of the few rivers left in Washington that has water clean enough to sustain native chum salmon runs, the STEP discharge permit was only temporary.

Then in 1993 the city began working with Skillings Connolly, a civil, transportation and environmental engineering firm based in Lacey, to help achieve its goals. The passage of Washington’s Reclaimed Water Act in 1992, which encouraged the beneficial use of reclaimed water and authorized the development of pilot projects to cities that wanted to pioneer wastewater reclamation, was a saving grace. Working from the existing state pilot program, the city and the engineering firm composed a plan to reuse the city’s wastewater.

In conjunction with the Department of Health and the Department of Engineering, Skillings Connolly developed incentive programs — such as a park feature — to encourage residents of the community to adopt the reuse plan. Emphasizing community values and explaining the city’s water shortage to the residents encouraged them to become involved in the reuse project.

A public awareness campaign designed to engage the community in wastewater reclamation was developed. Local school children named a mascot, “Mike the Pipe,” in honor of the purple pipe that signifies reclaimed water. The town’s high school drama department produced a skit called “Down the Drain and Back Again” to show their support and excitement for the new system.

With the reuse facilities complete, Yelm is now home to the first Class A Water Reclamation Facility and distribution system in Washington. The water is currently used at schools, parks, churches, homes and in fire hydrants.

In addition, located in the center of Yelm is Cochrane Park. A man-made, 8-acre wetland park and aquifer recharge, the park is home to a wildlife habitat and a catch-and-release fish pond filled with rainbow trout.

As most communities in western Washington don’t realize the advantages of reclaimed water, the City of Yelm is ahead of the game and is already benefiting. Not only is the Yelm water supply being saved, but with no toxic discharge into the Nisqually River, the chinook salmon runs are being saved as well.

In fact, because of the successful wastewater pilot project in Yelm, other Washington cities such as Lacey, Tumwater and Olympia are in the process of planning wastewater treatment facilities. Until then, the City of Yelm is proud to be the first in the state to use 100 percent reclaimed water and is looking forward to expanding its facility to include the city’s high school and concrete-manufacturing facilities.

Thomas Skillings established Skillings-Connolly in Lacey.

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