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  • Hector Amezcua /

    Where there was once a weedy, vacant lot, three little boys find fascination at the edge of a new rain garden in Elk Grove, constructed with recycled materials. The trio are 3-year-old twins Ryan, left, and Evan Scovis, along with their big brother Nathan, 5, right.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    At the Elk Grove Rain Garden Plaza, city worker Jeff Vener demonstrates how an innovative paving system absorbs rainwater for distribution to nearby plant life.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Drought-tolerant plants take root.

Elk Grove's innovative rain plaza has an earthly use for water

Published: Wednesday, May. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

Schoolchildren watched closely as water flowed from a rooftop gutter and trickled down a chunky copper chain and into a garden bed of plants.

It's a simple concept with far-reaching implications, say Elk Grove city officials. The rain chains are part of the city's Rain Garden Plaza, which opened Monday on a 1-acre site near the city offices.

"I like it," said Gabe Benson, a sixth-grader from Ellen Feickert Elementary School. His class got an opening-day tour of the garden. "There's only so much fresh water on Earth, so I think we need to try to save it."

Elk Grove officials showed off what they described as the wave of the future in eco-friendly landscaping design. The plaza, which displays water conservation techniques and drought-resistant plants, is being touted as the most comprehensive rain garden in the greater Sacramento region.

Rain gardens are shallow depressions in the landscape that catch and filter rainwater from roofs and pavements, allowing storm water runoff to be recycled and channeled to plants and soil, rather than allowing it to flow directly to storm drainage systems. The methods also curtail excessive flows that damage the area's creeks, and the garden will be a habitat for insects and birds.

The city built the garden in a weedy vacant lot near the city offices in less than a year, said Elk Grove Mayor Jim Cooper. The plaza cost about $450,000, coming primarily from city storm water drainage facility fees.

Cooper said the new plaza will educate the public about ecologically sustainable ways to landscape.

"The garden features low-impact development practices that work with nature to manage storm water close to its source," Cooper said at the opening. "And it incorporates natural river-friendly landscaping techniques."

The plaza, which includes a canopied picnic area, exercise equipment and art, incorporates features that can be easily used in a home or business, such as drought-resistant native plants, synthetic lawns, rain chains instead of downspouts, and permeable surface materials.

Many of the methods on display can also be cheap and low-maintenance alternatives that cut down on chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, said Fernando Duenas, project manager.

Guy Rutter, president of the Cosumnes Community Services District, said the garden's plants, such as California buckeye trees and showy milkweed bushes, show that drought-resistant plants can be attractive and low-maintenance. He believes they are becoming more common as consumers embrace water-savvy landscape designs.

"About 10 years ago, we wanted to use native plants requiring low-water use, and we couldn't find these plants anywhere," Rutter said. "We searched high and low."

He said the plaza uses a combination of "art and engineering to address storm water runoff, water conservation and water pollution issues."

The garden's design includes water collection and harvesting measures, such as rain chains that can channel water to plants, and rain barrels, which can collect rainwater from drain spouts for use later.

Duenas explained a demonstration of water-permeable pavers, concrete and decomposed granite surfaces. While a city worker poured a bucket of water over paving stones in the garden, Duenas pointed out how the water disappeared into the cracks.

"The water drains through the pavers, through a layer of gravel, then into underground pipes that distribute the water back to the garden," Duenas said.

Eric Berntsen, a scientist with the state Water Resources Control Board, told the audience at the opening that the garden shows "best use practices" and how they work.

"California's population will be at 50 million by 2020, so we have to be smart about water use," he said. "It's nice to see someone do this without being forced to. Elk Grove just stepped up and wanted to do this. Elk Grove should be proud. It's one of the nicest rain gardens I've seen statewide."

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