Debbie Arrington

Seeds: State Fair shows water-wise awareness

Before the State Fair opened its gates Friday, visitors to Cal Expo already were noticing the drought-minded changes this summer.

“The grass on Exposition Boulevard is looking pretty sorry,” said Sonya Logman, Cal Expo’s external affairs director. “Actually, we’ve gotten phone calls – ‘Hey, you’ve got some sprinklers broken – your lawn is not getting watered.’ But it’s intentional as we work to meet the (conservation) mandates.”

Just like residents, businesses and farmers throughout California, the State Fair has had to deal with drought. Instead of just letting the grass die, fair organizers decided to use this as an opportunity to help its 700,000 patrons learn many ways to save water in their own lives.

“Obviously, we know it’s an important issue,” Logman said. “As a state agency, we’re working toward the 20 percent mandate of reduction. Our team is confident we’re on target to meet that goal.”

Cal Expo gets its water from its own wells, but has made a concentrated effort to conserve as much as possible. In March, for example, the fairgrounds cut water use by 1.7 million cubic feet compared to that same month in 2013. That’s more than 12.7 million gallons – enough water to supply a typical family of four for 87 years.

Water use for the racetrack’s usually green infield was cut in half. Cal Expo’s familiar lagoon was allowed to go half-dry. They’re more visible reminders that “Cal Expo is doing its part,” Logman said.

“We’ve gone back and forth about whether to have the fountains on,” she added. But the cooling station misters likely will be available, especially as temperatures creep into triple digits. Cal Expo also added shade and seating on the back side of the California Building and along the Main Street area.

Inside the Counties Building a new interactive exhibit “Californians Don’t Waste – Save Water in Your Home” was put together with the help of the state’s Department of Water Resources, which also contributed to other drought education outreach at the fair.

“The cool thing: It’s about how to save at home,” said Greg Kinder, Cal Expo’s deputy manager in charge of programs. “In a 30-by-30-foot space, we have a kitchen, bathroom and laundry room – like a typical house. It should give people a lot of insight about ways they can save, too.”

Saving money always is a popular topic, and Kinder expects this water-wise addition to be a draw.

“Especially people with water meters; they’ll realize they have money going down the drain,” Kinder said. “Even if you’re not metered, it’s important to care. (Saving water) is a group effort.”

Down on the Farm, the drought offered an opportunity as well as a challenge. The fair’s 3-acre tribute to agriculture and horticulture went through some major revisions.

“It will catch everybody’s eye immediately,” said Nancy Koch, who supervises the Farm. “That lush tropical atmosphere we used to portray is gone. We now look more like a working farm.”

For several summers, a truck and tractor covered with living grass and plants greeted visitors at The Farm’s entrance.

“It was an iconic feature, cute as a button,” Koch noted, “but it required a lot of water. It was hydroseeded on metal. We had to run (the irrigation system) six or eight times a day to keep it green. So we opted for something very different.”

Instead of the grass-covered truck, the entrance now boasts a mini-orchard of fruit trees supplied by Dave Wilson Nursery. Featuring nectarines, plums, pluots and other stone fruit as well as a few pomegranates and blueberry bushes, the water-wise grove was planted by horticulture students from American River College. As an illustration of current agricultural techniques, the trees were pruned low for easy picking.

“They’re still seedlings, just starting out,” Koch said. “But down the road, it will be spectacular.”

Water-wise landscape beds show off a large assortment of flowers that attract pollinators. Master gardeners will offer advice daily about how to cope with drought. Toro Irrigation will offer weekend demonstrations on how to use “smart” controllers and convert sprinklers to drip irrigation.

The Farm already used drip systems but is saving more water this summer through its choice of plants and “lots of mulch,” Koch said. Instead of long rows of thirsty field corn, the Farm planted more Mediterranean crops such as eggplant, artichokes, peppers and tomatoes. A recipe card (featuring a Mediterranean rice salad) guides visitors through the exhibit.

“We were very mindful of the crops we planted this year,” Koch said. “And the crops we planted are doing fabulous – the vegetables love the heat. We’ve already harvested more than 1,500 pounds (for local food banks).”

To further illustrate the drought’s consequences, one large bed was left fallow with a strip of dry pasture and unwatered fruit trees.

“It’s very sad-looking,” Koch said. “We wanted to show some of the difficult decisions farmers had to make. Drought does impact everybody.

“But we also show how farmers are coping through innovation in farming practices. The ingenuity of California farmers is amazing. Out of every bad turn, there’s a turn for the better.”