Penny-Wise, Fountain Foolish

By Jim McCloskey

A news story out of New Zealand caught my eye the other day.

It was all about a new fountain/waterfeature the city of Napier has added to a spot close to the National Aquaium and near beautiful Hawke’s Bay.

As you can see by clicking on the link below to get the full story and a photograph, it’s a fairly pedestrian composition:  three bubblers set on four low-slung levels do not make for a dazzling display by any means.  But while it may be soft-spoken, the fountain is nonetheless attractive:  Lots of children are being drawn to the water, and even adults have taken to dipping their toes in it to cool off on warm days.

Trouble is, the fountain wasn’t meant for bathing and, beyond any immersion-related safety issues, lacks any sanitizing system to make the water safe for those who get close enough to touch it.

The town doesn’t want to “spoil the fun,” as the mayor put it, so there are no plans to shoo people away or limit access.  But with respect to water quality at least, I can’t help thinking that this is a massive case of poor planning on the designer’s and the builder’s parts:  It would have been so easy, had the thought been accommodated from the start, to augment the circulation system with an in-line sanitizing unit of one form or another.

Yes, it would have increased the cost of the watershape.  But what will happen when someone gets ill as a result of swallowing a mouthful of contaminated water or exposing a cut or abrasion to the bacteria and viruses it might contain?  New Zealand isn’t quite so regulation-happy as we are in the United States, but I would guess that it won’t be long before access is restricted or a costly retrofitting project comes up.

This subject of treating fountain water with public health in mind is one that’s come up several times through the years in WaterShapes, and I specifically recall the suggestion that all doubt be taken from the discussion by pre-emptively including some sort of water-treatment system in public fountain designs.  If they’re viewed as variations on a swimming-pool theme (which they should be), why not design their circulation systems to remove any worries related to water-borne contaminants?

I’ve always appreciated the level-headedness of that approach.  Why invite trouble down the line by turning something inherently attractive into an attractive nuisance?  Why make it so easy for municipalities and health departments to address the situation by turning off the pumps and draining inadequate fountains, effectively turning gathering places into abandoned shells?

Already in Napier, at least one citizen has asked why there’s no fence around the town’s brand-new waterfeature.   Civic leaders declare that the fountain was never intended as a paddling pool for tots, but it seems that they did foresee that kids would be kids and that their contact with the structure and its contents was inevitable.  Where’s the disconnect?

It’s a pretty place and a spritely fountain, and the town apparently has big plans for future development in the area.  Unfortunately, I can see nothing that will impede that progress more quickly than news reports about outbreaks of fountain-traceable waterborne diseases.  It’s all so unnecessary.

Moral of the story:  If you can anticipate unintended watershape usage, accommodate it by all means necessary – and do it right up front, when it will be cheaper than it will ever be as an afterthought.

To see the story about Napier’s kid-friendly fountain, click here.

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