Troubled Waters

The historic Capitol fountain has been standing sentry in front of our city’s most celebrated building since the 1920s, but empty symbolism has kept the water from flowing for years. This is one drought that we can actually do something about.
Fountain Postcard
A vintage postcard shows the brilliantly lit fountain at night.

WWhen it comes to water, the state of California can’t seem to agree about much of anything. Feuds persist about the reservoir at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite, the Delta’s controversial peripheral canal, and countless other topics of an aquatic nature that plague our massive state.

But there is one water issue here in California that appears less polluted by political or environmental divisiveness, and more by plain old-fashioned governmental incompetence. That issue is the sad state of disrepair endured by the historic fountain that stands directly in front of the Capitol building.

Deprived of water since 2010, initially under the guise of water conservation (more on that in a moment), the condition of Sacramento’s most prominently placed fountain is nothing short of a civic and state embarrassment, a dusty symbol that suggests that the elected men and women who pass by it each day, whose very windows look out upon it, can’t fix some of the smallest of the state’s problems, even when said problems are literally right outside their front door.

Not that the significance of fixing this particular fountain is small.

It turns out that the State Capitol is actually Sacramento’s top tourist draw. According to the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Capitol attracts over 600,000 visitors per year. And if that’s where Sacramento tourists are flocking, then a 36-foot-wide concrete hole in the ground doesn’t exactly make for a great first impression.

Besides, like the Capitol itself, the fountain is part of our historic legacy. Not to mention, it’s 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 the postcard on the previous page and many others like it from yesteryear. Civic fountains are landmarks in cities around the world for a reason. Done well, they’re dynamic urban design features; massive aquatic sculptures that produce light, movement and sound.

And Sacramento has one that dates to the 1920s, and when lit up at night, it’s a welcome beacon of civility and grandeur. Yet in a city that sits at the confluence of two mighty rivers, the only water feature in the middle of our city’s preeminent boulevard sits dry, with 62 spigots encircling the circumference, waiting to put on a show.

So what is our state government doing about it? Back in January 2012, two years after the water stopped, I asked the Department of General Services (or DGS, which manages the state’s office properties) what the status was, and a spokesman 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.” All was well.

But fast forward to January 2014, when I asked again, and a different DGS spokesman said via email that it was “exploring potential funding mechanisms for the repair of [the] fountain,” but insisted that it didn’t have a cost estimate for repairs.

So now it’s a money issue?

OK, let’s get a few things straight here. Not only is the state in the unusual position of figuring out how to manage its budget surplus for the first time in years, but this past summer, the state completed a $50 million renovation of the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building that sits adjacent to the fountain (they were designed simultaneously as part of the same project). Yet somehow the state couldn’t pull together even an estimate for what it would cost to repair the fountain sitting out front. Plus, how can it be a financial issue when DGS doesn’t even know how much it would cost to repair it?

The DGS spokesman continued, though, explaining that it wasn’t simply about finances: “In line with [Governor] 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.”

We all realize that 2013 set records for one of the driest years in California history, and that the current drought has serious consequences. Normally, this might be a compelling argument for not running a large fountain 24 hours a day. As it happens, when it comes to the Capitol fountain, it’s an argument that simply doesn’t hold water.

It turns out that this isn’t the first time that the Capitol fountain has been shut off for “conservation” purposes. There are actually three state-owned fountains surrounding the Capitol, and two of them were turned off in 1977 during another serious drought (the one that fed into the park’s goldfish pond was left on).

But, as explained in an Associated Press article at the time, the “Department of General Services said Thursday that the shutoff really won’t save much water, because the fountains all have pumps that recycle the water anyway.”


The fountain has been dry since 2010, and is surrounded today with a ring of dirt.

In fact, the article goes one step further (perhaps one step too many?) to explain that turning off the fountains saved enough water to equal about three toilet flushes per day. That translates to approximately one flush per fountain per day in a state of nearly 40 million people.

If that doesn’t sound like a very sound conservation plan to you, you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, it turns out that it wasn’t actually a real conservation plan at all. The DGS spokesman named in the 1977 article helpfully went on to admit that the decision to turn off the fountains was simply “symbolic.”

And who was the governor at the time? A young, fresh-faced politician by the name of Jerry Brown.

So clearly, the reasons behind the Capitol fountain’s closure are as squishy as a red-legged frog from the Sacramento Delta. Is the issue a broken water line? Or is it about funding? Or is it about conservation?

When asked when the issue might be addressed, the current DGS spokesman did proffer one possibility: “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.”

You heard that right. 2017 or 2018. That means it will take the state longer to reopen the Capitol fountain than it will take Sacramento and its private partners to design and construct a half-billion-dollar arena that is promised to be the most technologically advanced in the world. How’s that for efficiency?

Part of the problem is that the state government is not subject to local design review rules anywhere in California. And Sacramento gets hardest hit by this legal loophole because the state has more concentrated land here than in any other city. Essentially, it can do whatever it wants on state-owned property. The problem is that this particular state-owned land is in the middle of our city. So the state’s indifference is negatively affecting Sacramento when it deprives us of a landmark fountain at our most visited tourist attraction.

So what’s to be done? If the state doesn’t want to tackle the problem, it should do what it did with the streets and median divides on Capitol Mall in 2005 and bequeath the fountain to the city, which is deeply interested in creating a vibrant Capitol Mall from the Tower Bridge to 9th Street. Why not let Sacramento take control of this last section of the mall (up to 10th Street) so that a unified vision of the mall can be explored?

If the state won’t budge on that, it should allow the city or private businesses (architects, pool builders) to get involved 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, you guessed it, the State Capitol).

In the end, Governor 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 an historic civic treasure while saving the aquatic equivalent of about a single toilet flush a day.

Just because the state is suffering from an historic 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.