ST. GEORGE – Touted as Utah’s first desert conservation garden, the Red Hills Desert Garden in St. George officially opened to the public Wednesday.
Set between the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s office building and nearby Pioneer Park along Red Hills Parkway, the $3 million conservation garden covers 5 acres and features a landscape of over 170 low-water-use plants and an 1,150-foot meandering stream. Paths crisscross the site and move along and over the stream, and benches are situated under shade structures, offering visitors a place to sit and enjoy the desert scenery.
A part of the path leads into an artificial slot canyon covered in red faux rock that blends into the native landscape. At the end of the slot canyon is a viewing area where visitors can observe fish native to the Virgin River swimming in the stream.
“It’s a great place to come and enjoy the peace and quiet, a little water, and learn something, as well,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said.
The primary focus of the garden is to teach and promote water conservation and landscaping principles, while also offering visitors a chance to learn about the environment of the Virgin River and the six native fish species that populate it.
Though not completely installed yet, signs giving details about the plants in the desert garden will feature codes visitors can scan with their smartphones to receive details about the plants.
By showing that a desert landscape can still look attractive while saving on water use, county water district officials are hoping the garden will motivate members of the public to follow suit with their own landscaping.
“We wanted to showcase that you can have lovely landscapes and still be conscious of less water in this environment,” Ron Thompson, general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, said. “… My hope here is this will be a great desert education facility (where) people (visit) and get comfortable with what works in the desert and what doesn’t.”
Traditional landscapes can use up to 60-70 inches of water per year, while the desert landscaping featured at the garden takes 17-20 inches of water per year, said Corey Cram, associate general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District
The Red Hills Desert Garden came about through a partnership between the City of St. George, the Washington County Water Conservancy District and the Virgin River Program. Other agencies, like the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Utah Division of Water Resources, were also involved.
People are attracted to water, Cram said, and while the prime focus of the desert garden is to encourage water conservation, the district also wanted to provide a means through which the public could view the Virgin River’s native fish and learn more about them.
“We wanted to make this something people could appreciate and see,” Cram said. “We have tens of thousands of people who live here and have never seen a native fish out of the Virgin River. … It’s very difficult for people to appreciate a fish if they’ve never seen it.”
Now, garden visitors can view the fish in an artificial habitat built to replicate the Virgin River. The water used for the stream is pumped in from the Virgin River via nearby Skyline Pond.
“This is Virgin River water for Virgin River fish for Virgin River education,” Cram said.
So far, some Virgin River chub and speckled dace have been placed in the stream. The speckled dace have already begun to reproduce in the stream.
“That tells us the stream is working,” Cram said.
The fish in the stream won’t just survive but will thrive there, he said.
While Wednesday marks the garden’s official opening to the public, people have already been taking advantage of the site, and some have already visited many times. Thompson said he’s had many people tell him they enjoy the desert garden a great deal.
“I’ve been so impressed,” St. George resident Suzan Hawes said while visiting the garden. “The landscaping is absolutely gorgeous. … The community is going to love it.”
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