Drought Ethics: Should San Diego Go With Palm Springs Fountain Flow?

After a hiatus because of water restrictions, decorative public fountains are now back on in Palm Springs — for the sake of their appeal to tourists.

Should San Diego entertain the same notion?

An informal survey by NBC 7 downtown Tuesday revealed mixed emotions: absolutely not, and why not — within certain limits?

We began our dive into the drought politics of two different tourist towns with a stop at the fountain sculpted in the image of a ship’s bow parting the waters on Civic Centre Plaza.

It can't exactly be classified as tourism-oriented.

But it is in fact “public art” and has an exemption from emergency water regulations to operate for “limited purposes” to maintain the “structural integrity” of the waterworks.

That didn’t impress downtown resident Keith Robinson.

“If we have regulations on homeowners, we should also have regulations on this water running here, you know?” he huffed indignantly. “It's not a good thing. It's beautiful to see, but we're in a drought — make it into a flower pot, or some kind of false plants or something!"

Lakeside resident Terrie Carney echoed the same theme as she took in the eye-catching sculpture of the “Adam and Eve” fountain on B Street, outside Wells Fargo Bank Plaza.

“The fountains are beautiful, but if everybody else is being asked to cut back,” she reasoned, “I really think they ought to shut them off because it really is wasting water."

We're told the fountain doesn’t run at night, and not at full power during the Level 2 drought stage.

The Downtown San Diego Partnership has turned off the spray jets altogether in the expansive water feature across Harbor Drive from the Convention Center.

Its evaporation factor figures to be quite high, depending on the heat — and when it comes to so-called optics, the message being sent certainly is politically correct.

But that approach no longer floats in Palm Springs, where the local water agency and city council voted to return to full-speed ahead for fountains like "Rainmaker” because tourists sounded off about liking the aesthetics.

Ditto for Palm Springs hotel and business owners, while many resident said they'd rather let more lawns and trees go thirsty.

The fountain in Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama came on just as we arrived during a "limited use" cycle during the noon hour.

It quickly gathered a crowd of camera-toting admirers who hailed from all over the country and provided a teachable moment for blending conservation, aesthetics and tourism-centric priorities.

"You have to do the combination of what's good for the environment and for the economy,” said Kim Hills, a visitor from Hartford, Connecticut, as she cradled her young son nearby. “I know Will got all excited when the fountain turned on. It seems like a compromise to have the fountain on a little bit, or on-and-off, so you don't waste water."

Then there's an overarching exemption that applies to fountains serving recreational purposes, such as the one at the bayfront County Administration Center and the big oasis between the Natural History Museum and Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park

Both attract locals and tourists alike.

We put the issue to a gentleman whose surname is — coincidentally, believe it or not — Fountain: Joseph Fountain, visiting from Phoenix.

"When you look at the amount of money that comes into San Diego because of tourism,” he observed, “you really want to keep the tourists happy. This park is packed. A lot of kids are at the park right now. It's not just about tourists, it's also about the community."

So much, at least right now, for turning the things into planters.

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