Water & Drought

Capitol Park gets a drought-minded makeover

Capitol Park gets drought smart

Brian Ferguson, deputy director of the California Department of General Services, outlines water-saving changes for Sacramento's Capitol Park.
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Brian Ferguson, deputy director of the California Department of General Services, outlines water-saving changes for Sacramento's Capitol Park.

“California’s front yard” is getting a water-wise makeover.

Work crews Wednesday started sheet mulching swaths of lawn outside the state Capitol as the iconic Capitol Park begins transforming its landscape for a more drought-tolerant future. More than 76,000 square feet of turf, or about 2 acres of the 40-acre park, will be replaced with low-water alternatives such as California native plants and drought-tough fescue and Buffalograss.

It’s part of “Fix It for Good,” a plan by the Department of General Services to score permanent water savings at several state facilities including the grounds that surround the Capitol. The new drought-tolerant landscaping will occupy the most visible areas adjacent to the building, which draws 1.1 million visitors each year.

“The world around us is changing,” said department director Daniel Kim in a statement announcing the plan. “It is critical that we adapt Capitol Park to our state’s new, more arid climate. We want to demonstrate to all Californians how to preserve the historic trees and other beautiful plants in the park while also saving water wherever we can.”

That balancing act presents the same landscape dilemma faced by many California homeowners, noted department deputy director Brian Ferguson, who led a tour of the project Wednesday.

“We want to lead by example,” Ferguson said. “(TV host) Huell Howser used to call Capitol Park ‘California’s front yard.’ We hope to set a good tone for front yards all over California. We want to show that Californians can make changes that save water permanently.”

After Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014 emergency drought mandate to reduce water use by 20 percent statewide, Capitol Park shut off its sprinklers. Turf irrigation was restricted to lawn areas that overlaid tree roots, and large stretches of grass went brown.

“It had a dramatic effect,” Ferguson said. “Since 2013, Capitol Park cut water use by 39.7 percent – that’s 15 million gallons a year. But (shutting off sprinklers) was never meant to be a permanent solution. That’s why we’re now going to ‘fix it for good.’ 

Founded in 1860, Capitol Park ranks as America’s oldest arboretum west of the Mississippi and features 968 trees, some dating back more than a century. Other plantings, such as the popular World Peace Rose Garden and the heritage camellia grove, also have historical and cultural significance, officials said.

968Historic trees in Sacramento’s Capitol Park

Under the new plan, such botanical assets will be spared as will most of the rolling lawn around monuments, memorials and trees. But modifying other turf areas will yield 1.6 million gallons of water per year, according to department estimates.

The department worked with the state Department of Water Resources, the California Native Plant Society, UC Davis and experts on drought-tolerant landscaping to formulate its conversion plans.

The most noticeable changes will be seen just outside the Capitol’s four entrances. A native plant demonstration garden will occupy a large rectangle in front of the east steps. In high-traffic zones outside the other entrances, permeable pavers will cut down on turf area. Remaining grass will be replaced with new hybrid fescue, Buffalograss and other low-water grasses. In low-traffic areas or shady places where grass struggles to grow, walk-on mulch or decomposed granite will replace lawn.

In addition, more native plant demonstration gardens will be tucked into corners of the park.

“We’ve been working on this plan for two years,” Ferguson said. “If we’re successful, the public won’t notice a lot of these changes. There may be turf, but it will be different grass that’s more drought tolerant and uses less water. (The makeover) may look small, but it will be a big change over time.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

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