Yelm’s Irrigation System Had Drawbacks

Farmers Offered Little Encouragement

(From: Prescott, Edgar. Nisqually Valley News, 1989)

Still there were those who claimed that irrigation had retarded the town’s growth and would eventually lead to its ruination.

They told of waiting helplessly, watching crops dry up, while broken flumes were being repaired. They told of makeshift flumes and rocky ditches in which water drained away before it reached the fields. They complained of assessments they were forced to pay or lose their land – assessments which were exorbitant when you considered that the supply of water was seldom adequate and never certain. They told of families who had lost their land and moved away, leaving fields to grow up to grass and weeds.

Statistics verified their charges: Assessments were $10 an acre on irrigable land and $1.50 on acre on non-irrigable lands within the district. According to figures for January 1948, 439 acres – 10 percent of all first class land – had been taken over by the district for non-payment of assessments. No new families were moving in. Banks refused to lend money. Of the 4,350 acres within the district suited to irrigation, only 30 percent was being farmed.

Year after year, Yelm Irrigation Co. had run more deeply into debt. In 1933 it had been reorganized. The state had taken over its debts and paid off bonds and warrants at 33-1/3 cents on the dollar. Throughout the middle thirties, it had been subsidized by the WPA. All labor and much of the lumber for flumes had been furnished by the government; yet in 1938 it had been forced to borrow more money from the state. The indebtedness in that year had been $138,000; and though a definite bond retirement schedule had been set, the schedule was never met. Again in 1946 the state put $81,000 into the company, bringing its indebtedness up to $210,000.

The fallacy, Jack Connor pointed out, had been in borrowing money over a period of 40 years to finance repairs which would be worn out in 10 or 15 years.

Jack Connor was a recent arrival in Yelm, an employee of Puget Sound Power and Light Co. He had great hope for Yelm’s future, and as director of the irrigation company was working confidently to accomplish that hope.

“We have a big job,” he said. “We can’t be satisfied with simply replacing broken-down material. It is our policy, when flumes break down, to replace them with permanent ditches. We’ve got to get the water to the prairie, and we’ve got to supply an adequate, permanent distribution system. When we have restored the farmers’ confidence, then and only then will the project accomplish its initial purpose. The cost of construction will be high, but when it is completed, maintenance will be reduced considerably.

“By the end of the year the company will have met its bond retirement schedule,” He pointed out. “The ditch is carrying more water than ever before; new crops are going in, strawberries, beans, sweetcorn and blackcaps.”

“There aren’t any farmers on the prairie anymore.” Dow Hughes snorted. “They’re lumber men, and a man who has worked in the woods is no good with a farm or with cows either.”

Archie Ferguson, a local builder, agreed: “The people work for Weyerhaeuser,” he said. “They work in Olympia or Tacoma or at Fort Lewis. They don’t want to farm. They want a place to live and raise their families. Yelm should be a bedroom town.”

There were many who claimed that the land was not worth irrigating. They pointed to the rock piles lining the fields in which new rocks worked up yearly – rocks which ranged form the size of a man’s head to the size of a man.

But old timers pooh-poohed any mention of Yelm’s soil being unproductive. They recalled the peak years, before depression, when more than 900 tons of blackcaps were produced on the prairie, when beans grew like mad out of the rocky ground. They pointed to Tony Alongi who, during the war years when practically everyone else went to work in some war plant, stayed home and farmed. Tony and his boys could grow anything – onions as big as your head, squash, everything. Why Tony made better than $2,000 from less than an acre of blackcaps during the field’s first year in production.

You gotta to fertilize lika hell!” Tony said.

The soil scientists of the Department of Interior agreed with Tony. The soil, they reported, was third class, porous in nature and subject to leaching. The 30 or 40 inches of rain which fell each year seeped through the soil carrying the elements and minerals necessary to plant growth.

Nor did Robert McKay, Thurston County agricultural agent, offer encouragement to those who would keep the irrigation district alive. In a speech before the Lions Club, he warned that irrigation by means of ditches and flooding was not only wasteful of precious water, it also increased the danger of leaching. Yelm’s hope for prosperity lay in the dairy or poultry industry, not in small farming.

Permanent pastures, he pointed out, would last10 or 15 years, would form a thick carpet of sod to protect the soil, fertility would be returned in the form of manure; but, he advised, nitrogen and phosphate would have to be added constantly, preferably by means of sprinkler systems, by which the amounts of water could be controlled accurately.

Most of the residents of the prairie were crowded into the high school auditorium that evening when the directors of the irrigation company reported its demise. The king was dead! A few tears were shed as neighbors recalled the times they had labored shoulder to shoulder to bring water to the land. For most it was time of rejoicing. Industry would be brought in. New homes would be built. Land values would soar. It was the beginning of a new era. Long live the King!

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