Photos by Mike Pearl
The William Mulholland Memorial Fountain is among the most neglected monuments in Los Angeles, along with our badass statue of Bruce Lee that we once put in a warehouse, and that War of 1812 cannon that we inexplicably keep tucked away in a corner of Pershing Square. The fountain memorializes the water-stealing asshole William Mulholland in a very appropriate way, but it's not a tourist destination, and most Los Angeles residents aren't even sure where it is.
To make matters worse, right now, those 50,000 gallons of water look like a big, wet middle finger to all the drought-conscious people letting their lawns die for the greater good. And it's also a middle finger to the law.
On April 25, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order, outlining how we're supposed to conserve water. One of the items on the list is "Turn off fountains and other decorative water features unless recycled or grey water is available." While the order was crystal clear, it wasn't initially obvious that the governor planned to enforce it. It wasn't even clear at the time that the state had the authority to dish out penalties, and the fountain has just continued gushing away.
A huge fountain shooting water 50 feet into the air was enough to just barely attract my attention whenever I drove past. Oh, look, that's still on during this drought, I would think to myself. I'm sure they have their reasons.
But on July 2, the Los Feliz Ledger, a neighborhood newsletter, wrote a piece called "Against the Governor's Wishes," in which they explained that in fact there was no justification for the fountain still being on. It just was.
Then yesterday, it was announced that the state's Water Resources Control Board is hatching a plan to hand out $500 fines for violating the order.
I asked the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to comment on the fountain's status. LADWP's media relations representative who relayed the following to me in an email:
"Mulholland Fountain, like other recirculating public fountains, splash parks, and water features, provides a public benefit that must be considered before any decisions are made. However, there may be options to reduce the amount of incidental water use without significant impact to the public benefit. Any proposed changes will certainly be discussed beforehand with the affected community."
To find out what public benefit they were referring to, I paid the fountain a visit.
It sits in its own little dedicated park that juts out into a major intersection, but the area sees little to no pedestrian traffic. It was a Tuesday afternoon, but it was the middle of summer, so I thought there might be kids playing in it.
There weren't. In the hour I spent there, I ran only into one person, and she jogged by without stopping. It turns out the fountain's not a splash park at all. In fact, you're not supposed to go in it.
I did anyway. It was dirty.
Recirculating water, by the way, is not recycled water. When the water evaporates, new, potable water is pumped in. Grey or recycled water would be even riskier to wade around in. If they started pumping in grey water, I suppose that would necessitate a scarier sign to put people off doing exactly what I did. But if you're already not supposed to swim in it, why use the good water to begin with?
LADWP had provided me with a little more information about my surroundings as well: "The Mulholland Fountain and the surrounding L.A. Aqueduct Centennial Garden set the stage for the ideal standards for public spaces with water features. While we maintain the fountain, the space subscribes to water conservation through the implementation of the California Friendly landscaping around the fountain."
This part is legit. It doesn't take much water to support a garden made up of desert plants. But is a massive fountain offset by an adjacent patch of drought-friendly landscaping?
I'm not going to pretend this fountain matters in any literal sense. The fountain's 50,000 gallons are about one seventh of an acre foot, and an acre foot (enough water to cover one acre with a foot of liquid) is the smallest unit farmers use to purchase water. 34 million acre-feet of California's water are used every year just to grow almonds. Agribusiness uses 80 percent of our state's water supply, and they want more. In other words, when you put it in perspective, it's an exaggeration to even call the fountain a drop in the bucket.
It's also not the only public fountain in Los Angeles. Among others, there's the one in Grand Park, which just opened. While that one should probably be shut off too, shutting off the Mulholland Memorial Fountain is more urgent.
The gesture would be rich in symbolism. Turning off the fountain that memorializes the guy who originally channeled water into Los Angeles would be a sign that there's something wrong in this city. The only thing that would make the irony more potent would be if anyone ever visited the thing.
Mike Pearl is our night editor. Follow him on Twitter.