By Harrell Glenn Crowson
Exclusively for the Desert Review
The State of California has finally recognized our drought. Cities, mostly in the Southern California desert, are imposing conservation methods and adopting restrictions on consuming water. It reminds me of a story concerning the fountain at the Plaza in Brawley.
During the early 1950s, my mother used to take me by the hand and walk downtown to cash my dad’s pay check. She didn’t believe in checking accounts.
She would go the Security Pacific Bank on the northwest corner of Sixth and Main Streets, get cash, and then proceed to pay her bills. After a quick visit with her sister who was working at JC Penney Department Store, making a payment at M. O. Kings Department Store, then some quick visits with Buck Watts at Brawley Appliance Store and saying hello to Marvin Lewis at his jewelry store, her last stop was City Hall to pay the water bill.
There she would instruct me to stand by the fountain outside the library and watch the water as it erupted from the top of the pedestal and sprinkled down the sides of the middle of the concrete structure. Sometimes there were fish swimming around in the six-inch depth, sometimes there were coins lying on the bottom, and sometimes there were nothing but gum wrappers and wet cigarette butts that had accumulated from discarded trash.
Nevertheless, the fountain served as a hypnotic babysitter while my mom went to pay our small, monthly fee for unlimited use of water at our house.
As I grew older, the fountain continued to represent a major part of my life, unnoticed, but always bubbling fresh water from its fountainhead.
During my elementary school days, it was a meeting place on our way to the Saturday matinee. We would tell our friends and our enemies to meet by the fountain outside the library after school. As we got older, it was a nice place to meet a girl who you did not have nerve enough to call on the telephone.
Then, as studies became more important, we would convince our parents that we had to go to the library for schoolwork that night. Unfortunately, my time at the library was not as intense as it probably should have been.
As a Brawley police officer during the early 70s, my memories of the fountain included hauling out drunks and hobos that used it as their personal hygiene facility. The Station would occasionally get calls concerning kids vandalizing the drain and causing the fountain to overflow.
I remember a live, three-foot sand shark left in the fountain by someone who had been fishing on the coast. The fountain was filled numerous times with soap causing bubbles to cascade from the fountain like a horror movie.
The fountain was improved over the years, new paint, tiles, attracting different kids, but the clean water continued to gurgle from the top. Never stopping.
In the late 70s-early 80s, I enjoyed the first and third Mondays when the Council would meet. On those evenings, the powers to be would gather around the fountain to discuss the upcoming city council meetings. To me, listening to those discussions around the fountain before council meetings revealed what life in Brawley was all about. Community leaders such as Pat Williams, Nick Pricola, Chuck Valenzuela, Abe Seabolt, Wayne Zills, Grace Hull, Louie Curiel, and John Benson would discuss the local news with never any concern for political correctness, only what was best for our community.
Back then, Brawley resisted change. The old school way was the only way. Serious projects that faced opposition were subdivisions without alleys, less than twice a week trash collection, parallel parking, and water meters. All of which eventually, but reluctantly, came to be.
It was during that time the federal government conveyed displeasure to say the least with Brawley’s water conservation efforts and the way treated water was discharged into the New River and eventually the Salton Sea.
First, they instructed the City to conserve water by installing meters on every residence. Second, they required the City to conduct secondary treatment of the sewer discharge. Even though the water discharged through its primary treatment facility was cleaner than the New River, it wasn’t clean enough for the Federal Government. The feds threatened to take the City to court with hefty fines and restrictions if the City did not comply.
Brawley traditionally resisted water meters. Their reasoning: Keeping the community green with lush lawns and trees would certainly be in jeopardy if financial limits were place on the use of our inexpensive residential water. No one wanted the community to end up looking like Palm Springs with gravel lawns and drought resistant landscaping. Also, the fear of dead trees and yellow, dried up lawns did not set right in our lush, bedroom community.
Back to our fountain: When the United States celebrated its Bicentennial in 1976, each city was encouraged to construct a project or program that would pay tribute to this national event.
The feds distributed heavy brass Bicentennial discs, about one foot in diameter, to be placed at each project. City Manager Walker Ritter advised me that the City Council had voted to renovate and beautify the fountain at the plaza. An artisan was hired to re-tile the structure and place a new fountainhead on top.
As Parks and Recreation Director, I told my parks foreman, Abe Gonzales, to rope off the fountain during this reconstruction and shut it down while it was being re-tiled. I also told him that while it was down, to replace the circulation pump and all valves.
Later that week in the evening, Abe came over to my house with some disturbing news. Very reluctantly, he reported that when the fountain was shut down, they could not find any circulation pump attached to the water line that supplied that fountain. Evidently, the fountain’s water level was controlled by adjusting the volume of water to the fountain. The drain, which was raised six inches from the bottom of the fountain, allowed the water to discharge directly into the Brawley’s sewer system. No recirculation system at all. We immediately placed the proper pump and electricity needed to recirculate water at the fountain.
I checked with long-time employees including Bob Lane, Jeff Kissee, Amos Jones, and several others. No one had any recollection of a circulation pump. That explained why when the drain was plugged, it overflowed.
Who knows how long the fountain discharged the water directly into the sewer prior to 1976. I know it had been over thirty years since my mother had taken me to the fountain. I could find no record of how long the fountain had existed before then. But, I could only imagine how many millions of gallons of treated water flowed through the one-inch pipe twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for over three decades into the city’s sewer system.
It was like leaving the kitchen faucet in your house on full blast for forty or more years. All that water was discharged into the New River and the Salton Sea.
A new circulation pump was installed. We also attached the Bicentennial brass plaque at the same time.
I haven’t thought about the fountain for years. Recently, I returned to Brawley to attend a farmers market at the Plaza, and standing by the fountain, I couldn’t help but recall the city’s Bicentennial project forty years ago. By the way, the brass plaque was stolen from the fountain a couple of months after it was installed.
A few weeks ago, I read an article in the LA Times about the water shortage in Las Vegas. The article talked about grass lawns, golf courses, and lack of conservation. But what really caught my attention was a photo of the fountain in front of the MGM Grand Hotel. Makes you wonder.