ST. GEORGE – How do you appreciate something you rarely get to see? That question was posed by Cory Cram, assistant general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, in relation to endangered fish species found in the Virgin River.
The answer: Create a place where people can readily see the fish in a Virgin River-like habitat, and one that promotes methods of water conservation through water-efficient desert landscaping.
That place is the Red Hills Desert Garden, set along Red Hills Parkway in St. George between the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s office building and nearby Pioneer Park. Still under construction and slated to open this fall, the desert garden presents great opportunities, Cram said.
“The main theme is water conservation, but along the way we have great opportunities for endangered species education,” he said.
Like the Tonaquint Nature Garden in Tonaquint Park, the Red Hills Desert Garden will feature various desert landscapes that promote water conservation. The Water Conservancy District aims to encourage homeowners and developers to incorporate those landscaping practices into their own projects. Free classes on gardening and landscaping will be offered at the Desert Garden to help accomplish this.
“The goal is to make this easy,” Cram said.
While water conservation is the overarching theme, a central feature of the garden will be an artificial stream that winds through the garden, allowing visitors to see the endangered Virgin River chub and woundfin up close
“We’ll have Virgin River fish in a Virgin River environment,” Cram said.
Water for the stream will be supplied by nearby Skyline Pond, which gets its water from the Virgin River.
To accompany the stream, a viewing area has been built that will allow visitors to look into the stream straight on through three different windows. The viewing area itself will be accessible through a path built to resemble a slot canyon.
“You can imagine 30 to 50 kids here,” Cram said, describing a class of children potentially on a field trip to the Desert Garden facility in the future.
Cram said he anticipates the Red Hills Desert Garden being visited by tens of thousands of people once it is completed. The location along Red Hills Parkway provides great visibility, he said, and as it is next to Pioneer Park, visitors there may also want to see what the stream and desert garden are all about.
People will be able to take advantage of the free tours and presentations given at the garden or settle on wandering the paths that crisscross the garden’s surface. Along the way, some may notice imprints resembling tiny dinosaur tracks in the concrete sections of the path. When followed, they lead to spots along the path that display re-creations of dinosaur tracks and swim tracks that were discovered during the site’s construction. Interpretive signs will be near the tracks, providing information.
Cram said the area in which the desert garden is located is believed to have once been home to a meandering stream and ponds that dinosaurs swam through. The swim tracks were discovered as work on the Desert Garden progressed.
While they’re not as spectacular as the dinosaur tracks found at Johnson Farm, Cram said, the tracks nonetheless help add to what the Desert Garden has to offer overall.
“So all of this will come together and it will be a really neat thing for all ages of every family,” he said.
The Water Conservancy District is overseeing the Red Hills Desert Garden, but it isn’t the only entity involved. The City of St. George is also partnering on the project, along with the Virgin River Program, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Utah Division of Water Resources and the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.
For the City of St. George, which has been a big help, Cram said, the Desert Garden is an addition to the city’s already extensive park system. For the other agencies, the garden provides additional opportunities for public education about water conservation and endangered species.
The project is slated to cost more than $1 million, which is being covered by grants as well as volunteer and in-kind services, Cram said. Area contractors and nurseries are donating material, labor and plants for the Desert Garden, and at least one Eagle Scout project has sprung up out of the effort.
“We’re going to have a lot of community involvement,” Cram said. “We’re really proud of this. All of these things come together, and we think this will be a really classy project to be really proud of.”
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