by Heather Wendt and Rachel Little (Benton Conservation Districts)

Benton Conservation District (BCD) encourages wise stewardship, especially during Washington State’s drought emergency. During this uncertain and troubling drought period, phone calls to BCD have increased significantly. Homeowners don’t know how to keep lawns alive during drought-induced watering restrictions. Irrigators are worried about how to maintain water delivery and fish screen operations during the low river conditions. Regional media, eager for information, turned to BCD for multiple drought and conservation stories. Partner agencies contacted BCD, looking for technical expertise and drought-relief coordination. During the drought crisis, Benton Conservation District has served the region in many ways.

Heritage Garden demonstration

Heritage Garden demonstration

BCD offers free technical services and programs to help people conserve natural resources, whether on a working agricultural operation, a small hobby farm, or a home site. BCD’s drought-related programs for homeowners include irrigation management and the expanding Heritage Garden lineup. The Benton and Franklin Conservation Districts, in partnership with the Columbia Basin Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society (CBNPS), are implementing a low water-use landscaping program called Heritage Gardens. Heritage Gardens are landscaped areas designed to honor the cultural and natural heritage of the Columbia River Basin while utilizing sustainable gardening practices. Heritage Gardens include native plants, with an emphasis placed on plants that benefit wildlife and pollinators; plants that were utilized by the tribes for food, fiber or medicine; or plants noted during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In addition Heritage Gardens incorporate the geologic history of the basin by including locally sourced geologic features.

Heritage Garden with sign

Heritage Garden with sign

“It’s all about creating beautiful gardens that educate landowners, businesses and municipalities about the Columbia Basin while conserving one of our most precious natural resources – water,” said Heather Wendt, Assistant Manager of Benton and Franklin Conservation Districts and Heritage Garden Program Coordinator.

The Heritage Garden program provides one-on-one site visits with landowners and managers in Benton and Franklin Counties in partnership with Donna Lucas, CBNPS Heritage Garden Program Chair. Landowners are provided site-specific recommendation for plants they may want to incorporate into their garden based on program criteria and the individual garden aesthetic that they want to achieve. Gardens that are implemented and meet the Heritage Garden criteria are certified and receive a yard sign.

This year’s drought has had a tremendous impact on the program, according to Wendt.

“We have doubled the number of site visits to private properties, businesses, and municipalities.”

Since January, the districts have conducted 22 site visits, delivered five presentations to community groups, implemented two demonstration gardens and conducted one tour showcasing certified gardens. Converting lawn turf to certified Heritage Gardens can save thousands of gallons of water per year, protecting landscaping during drought years like 2015, but also continuing the legacy of conservation into the future.

“We are on the brink of a cultural shift, relearning how to approach our landscapes. The Heritage Garden Program provides a forward-looking vision utilizing our native plants, plants that developed strategies over thousands of years not only to survive our harsh environment, but to thrive in it,” explains Lucas.

Building upon public interest generated by the drought, the Heritage Garden Program will be hosting a Fall Heritage Garden Workshop on November 14. This workshop is free and will feature speakers on native plants, local geology, and pollinators. For more information contact Heather Wendt, heather-wendt@conservewa.net, or register here.

Another educational program of BCD, fueled by interest in the drought, is Firewise. Drought conditions often lead to elevated fire danger, a potential concern for both agricultural and residential properties. BCD’s Firewise program can help landowners prepare and manage property to make it less vulnerable to wildfires.

BCD’s drought-related programs for agriculture include irrigation water management, irrigation conversions, irrigation water conveyance, mulching, cover crops, pond sealing/lining, residue management, tree/shrub establishment, livestock water facilities and others.

BCD has also been removing carpets of stargrass from the Yakima River (another impact from the drought)

BCD has also been removing carpets of stargrass from the Yakima River (another impact from the drought)

Agencies and non-profit organizations including Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Columbia Irrigation District, Yakima Basin Fish and Wildlife Recovery Board, Mid-Columbia Fisheries Group and Ecology have approached BCD for BCD’s unique combination of technical expertise and local knowledge during the drought. As rivers conditions have changed this summer, these organizations have consulted with BCD staff about surface water quality, irrigation practices, native plants, and fisheries habitat. BCD has provided recommendations, including emergency fish habitat restoration, and has coordinated permitting, equipment, project logistics, private land access and staffing to implement this on-the-ground fish habitat project. Staffing has included volunteers, interns, MCFEG staff, and the Department of Ecology’s Washington Conservation Corps crews. BCD’s efforts have led to over 270 person-days contributed by partners to implementing this project, in addition to a Terry Husseman Shorelines grant from Ecology for $14,000. Without BCD’s local knowledge and technical expertise, these resources would have not have been focused on this local drought problem. Benton Conservation District has worked hard to provide landowner assistance programs, to share technical information among agency partners, and to conduct on-the-ground conservation projects during the 2015 drought.

BCD ended the summer by combating another side effect of the drought – masses of green water stargrass that is carpeting the Yakima River. The stargrass exploded this year, posing a threat to salmon habitat and clogging irrigation uptakes. Watch the video below to learn more about Benton Conservation District’s efforts to remove the grass: