Spray Tell: Re-imagined fountains work better than fancy water parks.
Spray Tell: Re-imagined fountains work better than fancy water parks. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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It’s a month after Memorial Day, and the new Chevy Chase facility being billed as the city’s 11th spray park hasn’t yet opened. Officials of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation thought they’d solved water-pressure problems with last week’s discovery of “a clog” in the underground filtration system. They hoped to have things unclogged by Monday. But work crews still couldn’t stabilize water pressure across the network of tarted-up sprinklers and hoses.

Plainly, getting wet has gotten a lot more complicated over the years.

In this and every other city, water from an open fire hydrant was the go-to salve of generations of hot and bothered youngsters. But cooling down via the fire plug is now officially uncool.

“Opening a fire hydrant sounds like a really urban and fun thing to do,” says Pete Piringer, public information officer for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Management Services. “But you can’t open a fire hydrant here anymore.”

In late spring, DCFEMS and DC Water (the water utility, formerly known as WASA, that controls D.C.’s approximately 9,000 hydrants), launched a campaign to stop citizens from putting hydrants to their own uses. The PR effort featured a list of the “Top 10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Break Open a Fire Hydrant.”

Now, there are valid reasons to regulate the use of hydrants: Fire-plug maintenance became an issue after the 2007 fire that destroyed the Georgetown Public Library. Firefighters on the scene complained that the two hydrants closest to the library were broken, stalling their response. Had this been at a residential building, something more precious than books might have gone up in flames.

But the DCFEMS/DC Water Top 10 list is weighed down by zzzzz-friendly ho-humdingers, such as “#7. Hydrant use can stir sediment in water mains and cause unnecessary instances of discolored water to customers in surrounding areas.” Not to mention inanely hyperbolic assertions such as, “#4. Caps on the hydrant can cannonball into the body of someone standing nearby.”

How come “You can put somebody’s eye out!” didn’t make the cut?

And, the No. 1 reason fire and water folks say you shouldn’t open a hydrant: “[U]nauthorized use of a fire hydrant is against the law and punishable by fines!”

(Any unauthorized person caught opening a hydrant can now get a $100 ticket, no matter what the thermometer says.)

“No, I don’t feel like a party pooper,” says Pamela Mooring, spokeswoman for DC Water, when asked if working to end a tradition as old and happy as fire-hydrant openings has left her feeling guilty. “We’re not the only ones discouraging the opening of fire hydrants. It’s pretty much nationwide.”

Piringer says DPR has worked to offset the hydrant ban. “The city has done a good job of taking care of people with the pools and [spray] parks,” he says.

No question, the city seems better equipped than ever to handle a long, hot summer, all thanks to DPR. Last year, the agency put out a press release boasting that every city-run outdoor pool and spray park was opened and operational during Memorial Day weekend. In any surrounding jurisdiction such a proclamation would seem ridiculous; everywhere else, pools always open on Memorial Day.

But here in D.C., DPR’s self-congratulatory tone was justified: Before 2010, the pools and spray parks had never all opened in time for the holiday. Never! Ever!

DPR would have been able to make the same brag for its pools this year had the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission not ordered a national recall of a drain often found in kiddie pools. On May 26, the feds announced that drains made by a host of manufacturers could create enough suction to entrap Baby Jane at the bottom of the pool.

Four DPR baby pools featured the recalled drains, according to the agency, and remain closed. (The baby pool at Upshur playground, in Petworth, had morphed into a beautiful green algae garden by last weekend.)

But DPR’s director, Jesús Aguirre, says that the spray-park building spree of recent years means that “the little ones” will have a place to get wet while the baby pools are out of commission. “I don’t know if I’d call a spray park the new swimming pool,” he says, “but they are getting much more popular here, especially with the 3-to-5-year olds.” Aguirre says the city now spends “from $50,000 to $150,000” on construction of each spray park.

Aguirre identifies three types of spray parks. There’s the basic model of the sort found at Guy Mason Recreation Center in Glover Park. It’s basically an outdoor shower. On a typical summer day, that’s plenty enough engineering. “That’s just a spigot, really, and that was done 30 years ago,” Aguirre says.

At the other end of the conceptual spectrum, there’s what Aguirre calls the “state of the art” spray park, like the one that opened in 2008 at the Petworth Recreation Center. It’s an assortment of arches and posts equipped with several spigots each for kids to run under, plus a tall pole with raised buckets that are designed to tip at regular intervals and dump their contents on young hot heads, and it’s all presented in a gaudy Dr. Seuss-ish color scheme. The water flow is ostensibly controlled through a series of user-activated switches, the better to limit water use when only a few kids are using the facility.

But perhaps because of its state-of-the-artitude, there’s an awful lot of downtime at the Petworth spray park. DPR personnel I’ve been speaking with since its opening have blamed the frequent breakdowns at Petworth on a dearth of service bulletins and a shortage of proprietary replacement parts from a Canadian spray-park manufacturer. Aguirre says they’ve now worked out the kinks.

Yet even when the Petworth park is functioning, it disappoints; during a recent visit, the water streams coming out of the fancy sprinklers were so dribbly that a prostate exam for the entire system seemed in order. The buckets tipped less than Pete Sampras. And the switches that kids are supposed flip in order to start the water are so hard to find that adults had to do the flipping.

Nothing will make you crave the good ol’ days of illegal open fire hydrants quite like watching water dribble at a state-of-the-art spray park.

Somewhere between Guy Mason and Petworth, both geographically and conceptually, there’s the fountain-variety spray park, located on a public plaza adjacent to the intersection of 14th Street NW and Park Road. It’s tiled and mostly unwalled; on D.C.’s dog days, it all but dares passersby of all ages and species to jump through the streams of water shooting up from the ground.

“On a regular day, it’s a fountain,” says John Stokes, chief of staff of DPR, which oversees operation of the Columbia Heights facility. “But on a hot day, it’s a water park. It’s interactive water art.”

I went by the park last Saturday afternoon. The temperatures were cooler than normal for late June, so most adults on the plaza stayed on dry land and out of the spray’s way. But two girls of grammar school age sat close to the center and in the path of the water jets, splashing each other and giggling without end. It was a wonderful scene, visible to everybody walking or driving past. Happy kids make a happy neighborhood. Happy neighborhoods make a happy city.

More interactive water art, please.

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