When it comes to water, the state of California can’t agree about much of anything, from the reservoir at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite to the Delta’s peripheral canal and countless other topics of an aquatic nature.
But there is one water issue that appears less polluted by political or environmental divisiveness, and more by plain old-fashioned governmental incompetence: The sad state of disrepair endured by the historic fountain that stands in front of the Capitol.
Deprived of water since 2010, most recently under the guise of water conservation, the condition of Sacramento’s most prominent fountain is nothing short of a civic and state embarrassment, a dusty symbol that suggests that the politicians across the street can’t fix even the smallest problems.
Not that the significance of fixing this particular fountain is small.
It turns out that the Capitol is Sacramento’s top tourist draw. According to the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, the building attracts more than 600,000 visitors annually. And if that’s where tourists are flocking, then a 36-foot-wide concrete hole doesn’t exactly make for a great first impression.
When it was working, the fountain was the only visual highlight on Capitol Mall between the Capitol and Tower Bridge. Quite simply, it should be a point of civic pride. It certainly used to be, as evidenced by Sacramento postcards from yesteryear. Done well, fountains are dynamic urban design features; massive aquatic sculptures that produce light, movement and sound.
And when lit up at night, this 1920s-era fountain is a beacon of civility and grandeur. Yet in a city that sits at the confluence of two rivers, the only water feature in the middle of our city’s pre-eminent boulevard sits dry, with 62 spigots encircling the dirt-rimmed circumference, waiting to put on a show.
So what’s going on?
In 2012, a spokesman for the Department of General Services, which manages the state’s office properties, explained that there was “currently a repair being made to the water line that feeds the fountain in the traffic circle. We hope to have the water line repaired by spring.”
By January 2014, another spokesman said DGS was “exploring potential funding mechanisms for the repair of (the) fountain,” but it didn’t have an estimate for repairs.
So now it’s about money?
Not only is the state in the rare position of having a budget surplus, but last year it completed a $50 million renovation of the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building, adjacent to the fountain. Yet somehow the state couldn’t pull together an estimate for repairing the fountain sitting out front.
The spokesman also explained that it wasn’t simply about finances: “In line with (Gov. Jerry) Brown’s directive to reduce water use until drought conditions ease, the state plans to strictly limit the use of water features (including fountains) at state-owned facilities going forward.”
Normally this might be a compelling argument. But when it comes to the Capitol fountain, it simply doesn’t hold water.
This isn’t the first time that the fountain has been shut off for “conservation” purposes. It was also turned off in 1977 during another drought. But, as explained in an Associated Press article at the time, the “Department of General Services said Thursday that the shut-off really won’t save much water.” The reason? The fountain’s water is recycled.
In fact, the article explained that turning off the water saved the equivalent of approximately one toilet flush per day. The General Services spokesman quoted in the 1977 article helpfully went on to explain that it was a “symbolic” gesture.
The governor at the time: Jerry Brown.
Now, in 2014, the Department of General Services says this: “Maintenance and repair of the historic fountain is likely going to be included in the Jesse Unruh building renovation project that is slated for 2017/2018.”
That means it will take the state longer to reopen the Capitol fountain than it will take Sacramento to build a half-billion-dollar arena. How’s that for efficiency?
Part of the problem is that the state isn’t subject to local design review rules. As a result, its civic indifference harms our city by depriving us of a landmark at our single most visited attraction.
What’s to be done? The state should do what it did with Capitol Mall in 2005 and bequeath the fountain to the city, which is deeply interested in creating a vibrant boulevard.
If the state won’t, it should allow the city or private sector to help revive this civic treasure before Sacramento makes its national appearance as the first stop in the Amgen Tour of California bike race this May – in front of, yes, the Capitol.
In the end, Brown should be more worried about a dysfunctional state government that needs eight years to fix a water fountain and less focused on making a symbolic gesture about conservation, especially one that robs the capital city of a historic civic treasure while saving the aquatic equivalent of a single toilet flush a day.
Just because the state is suffering from a drought doesn’t mean the city’s highest-profile water feature needs to as well.
It’s time to bring our picture-postcard fountain back to life.
Rob Turner is the co-editor in chief of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article originally appeared in Sactown Magazine (www.SactownMag.com).