By Greg Bundesen, Sacramento Suburban Water District.

This past year, Sacramento Suburban Water District in partnership with the Fulton-El Camino Recreation and Park District opened the Gardens at Howe Park, transforming an underutilized strip of patchy lawn into a series of educational water-efficient gardens.

This effort demonstrates how special districts working together can create innovative solutions that not only address immediate challenges, but can yield long-term customer and community benefits.

In 2015, Sacramento Suburban Water District (SSWD) and the Fulton-El Camino Recreation and Park District (FEC) began discussions about utility easements SSWD requested for new pipelines that would run through portions of Howe and other parks managed by FEC.

As discussions progressed, an idea was proposed, deliberated over several months and finally approved by the boards of directors of both organizations: FEC would grant the easement at no cost to SSWD and, in exchange, SSWD would fund the transformation of a section of Howe Park into an educational water-wise garden.

The agreement not only provided the easements SSWD needed at no added cost to ratepayers, it would also provide permanent recreational and learning opportunities, fulfilling SSWD’s mission of providing a reliable water supply and FEC’s mission of providing recreational and learning opportunities.

SSWD had experience with creating and developing demonstration gardens, having created its first garden, the Antelope Water Efficient Landscape Garden, in 1998. This two-acre garden features a variety of native and low-water plants, high-efficiency irrigation systems, and signage describing all of its elements. It is a popular destination and available for weddings and other events.

The park transformation was made even more important and timely given the historic drought gripping California at the time. During the drought emergency, the State Water Resources Control Board tasked SSWD with meeting one of the highest water savings targets in California – 32 percent. Customers, including FEC, went above and beyond to conserve, with many taking actions like not watering their lawn and creating water-efficient landscapes. The Gardens at Howe Park was an important part of the path forward, looking beyond the drought emergency.

Included in this transformation was an added bonus, a series of workshops funded by SSWD and hosted by FEC at their Howe Park office to teach customers about sustainable landscaping techniques. EcoLandscape California, a Sacramento-based non-profit organization dedicated to educating and advocating for ecologically-responsible landscapes, taught the workshops. SSWD had a previous relationship with EcoLandscape, as one of their founders, Cheryl Buckwalter, was heavily involved in the development of SSWD’s Antelope Gardens. EcoLandscape agreed to provide landscape training workshops for SSWD customers. Workshop participants were attracted by a desire to learn more about sustainable landscape practices and make a positive difference in their community.

Kathy Sawyer, one of the participants, said “she didn’t know how to plant a blessed thing.” When she and her mother saw the workshop ad, “we were so excited to have an opportunity to work together find out how to make over the yard.”

The workshop featured three, two-hour evening classes and two hands-on training days at the garden. The main focus was to introduce and raise awareness about River-Friendly Landscaping (RFL), an integrated approach to landscape design that focuses on conserving and protecting natural resources.


The evening classes provided an introduction to the principles of RFL and covered designing and implementing efficient irrigation, the basics of soil science, fertilizer use, integrated pest management, and landscape design. In the hands-on classes conducted in the gardens, participants were taught how to sheet mulch, design and layout a drip irrigation system, read and use a landscape design plan, how to plant plants properly, and adjust irrigation emitter placements to ensure healthy growth.

The efforts of the workshop participants helped to create a truly unique project: four, state-of-the-art, low-water use demonstration landscapes, including:

  • Sensible Switchover – featuring a layout similar to most Sacramento area yards, but with low-water plants and low-maintenance solutions.
  • Wilder Wonders – a less structured garden filled with color and texture, designed to provide food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and bees.
  • Water Works – a rain garden that demonstrates how plants take in, filter, and hold water in the soil.
  • Effortless Edibles – highlighting low-water edibles and aromatics.

Each of the gardens includes informational signage identifying the plants used and all of the landscape’s water-efficient features.

The end results surpassed expectations. The Gardens at Howe Park turned a neglected area of lawn into a series of educational gardens that will reduce water use by over 178,000 gallons annually. And by including workshops as part of this effort, the districts created a teaching moment that will inspire the community for years to come.

“We are two special districts with very different purposes and with one shared goal – satisfying the needs of the communities we serve,” said FEC General Manager Mike Grace. “This demonstration garden is a beautiful addition to Howe Park.

“This in-and-of-itself provides great worth. However, the real value is in the education opportunity it provides. Not only will our residents take advantage of this garden but all visitors from near and far will take the information back home with them to beautify their own homes and save millions of gallons of water in the process.”

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Originally posted at the California Special Districts Association.