UC Master Gardeners ‘Garden Walks’ conserves millions of gallons of water annually in Marin

Apr 5, 2021

The Marin Municipal Water District has saved nearly 30 million gallons of water since it initiated a partnership with UC Cooperative Extension's Master Gardener program in Marin to teach residents how to conserve water.

The program, Garden Walks, was established in 2008 to help Marin conserve water in a district with limited supply. MMWD purchases about 75% of its water from reservoirs on Mt. Tamalpais and in west Marin, and the rest from Sonoma County's Russian River water system.

Garden Walks provides personalized information and advice to water district customers focused on improving their irrigation practices to conserve water. The part-time coordinator sets up about 150 appointments a year for UC Master Gardener volunteers to visit the homes of Marin County residents and teach them how to manage their outdoor water usage with conservation in mind.

“When we finish our visits, I hope that the client is more confident about being proactive in their garden,” said Pam Polite Fisco, the program coordinator. “We hope they will be saving water, will use natives and will encourage wildlife in their gardens.”

The volunteers, dispatched in pairs, spend about an hour at the homes. They walk the garden and talk with residents about grouping plants with similar water requirements, adding mulch to the soil surface and composting clippings, leaves and other green waste so it stays on the property.

The UC Master Gardeners teach the residents how to check their water meters and use the meter to help determine whether there are leaks in the system. They provide advice on water-conserving plants, such as natives or other drought-tolerant plants. They ask the residents to run their sprinklers and other irrigation systems to ensure they know how to manage the controls.

The majority of the water savings realized by the program stems from repairing leaks and cutting back on overwatering, said Steven Swain, UC Cooperative Extension horticulture advisor and the technical advisor to the Marin County Master Gardener program.

As part of their agreement with UC Cooperative Extension, the Marin Water District monitors changes in water usage and reports them annually on their website, allowing Swain to determine the program's impact.

The majority of water savings during the life of the program is attributable to just one quarter of the houses Master Gardeners visited; three quarters of participants were managing water sustainably.

“Sometimes, our volunteers just give the residents a pat on the back and compliment them for a job well done,” Swain said.

About 6% of the clients visited have hidden water leaks in their irrigation systems. These leaks can waste huge amounts of water if not caught, and account for a large portion of the water savings.  Another 18% of clients are overwatering, which accounts for much of the rest of the savings.

Considering the value of the water conserved by the Garden Walks program, the $40,000 annual cost to hire the coordinator is more than offset by the reducing amount of water the district must provide.

This program has received a number of awards, including the Marin Conservation League's Ted Wellman Water Award in 2010. In 2011, it received first place in the UC Master Gardener's Search For Excellence awards and the Community Outreach Award at the National Extension Master Gardener Coordinating Conference. Marin County residents have also praised the program.

“The Master Gardener team was friendly, professional and helpful and shared their positive attitude to their garden and their outreach,” said Fairfax resident ‘Julie' in a follow-up survey

‘Jean' of San Rafael said, “I'm a beginning gardener. They helped me figure out how to start off right.”

A number of California counties were inspired by the success of the Marin County Garden Walks program and have adopted similar efforts to visit homeowners and assess irrigation efficiency.

View a video about the Marin Garden Walks porgram:

By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist