Concrete will replace water at Liberty Park’s Seven Canyons Fountain

City’s rehabilitation plans focus on a dry art feature, but former Mayor Rocky Anderson is pushing for water to flow again.

(Danny Chan La | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Seven Canyons Fountain at Liberty Park in 2003.

When the Seven Canyons Fountain was conceived, it was meant to be a celebration of water in a replica of the Salt Lake Valley.

And for decades, it was. But from 1993, the year it opened, fecal bacteria in that water shaped its fate.

After a long run of being the centerpiece of Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park, the water shut down in 2017 because of health concerns and maintenance issues. Now, efforts to rehabilitate it are starting to come to fruition. But not in the way many expected.

The city’s Public Lands Department plans to transform the fountain into a dry art feature after a public engagement process and feasibility studies that explored water and concrete solutions.

The city’s analysis found that restoring the fountain with flowing water could cost $2 million to $4 million, a news release stated. It also would require 21,000 gallons of water a day.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City announced it will reimagine Seven Canyons Fountain in Liberty Park into a dry art feature, pictured Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

“Seven Canyons Fountain has been an iconic fixture for many residents in Salt Lake City for three decades,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in the release. “While I’m sad it is not feasible to restore it, I’m pleased we’ll be able to preserve it for future generations in an updated form.”

Though reintegrating the water into the fountain was seen as important, Kat Maus, Public Lands planner said, health codes, water conservation and the infrastructure needed to reutilize the water for landscaping in Liberty Park surfaced as concerns — along with the hefty bill.

“Those options,” Maus said, “are not feasible within our budget.”

Besides, she said, most of the 1,600 people who participated in the city’s engagement efforts stated they wished to see the fountain repurposed into a dry feature.

The city allocated $850,000 for the upgrades, including the completion of the initial studies, Maus said. The city, along with artists and designers, will work for the next several months to craft a site plan for City Council approval.

Details are uncertain, but the aim is to present “an opportunity to educate on the city’s arid climate and changing climate,” Maus said, “and also provide a feature that is educational and celebrated by the community.”

Liberty Park’s centerpiece

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Seven Canyons Fountains at Liberty Park in 2013.

Calling this fixture a fountain may be an oversimplification. This was no ordinary amenity. Small streams would flow from the canyon models into a miniature Jordan River and, later, empty into a replica of the Great Salt Lake. That’s why parkgoers haven’t treated it as a regular fountain.

Just days after its 1993 opening, its caretaker was called names when he asked visitors to stop wading in it. A woman even organized 50 patrons to chant, “Hell, no, we won’t go.” At the time, the fountain’s water wasn’t filtered or chlorinated, so babies in disposable diapers and dogs became health concerns. Still, keeping guests young and old out of it proved challenging.

Though the health worries were addressed with some additions and permissions, they never completely solved the problem. Thus, the 2017 closure.

Even so, the fixture was wildly popular for years. Bringing it back to its glory days is part of former Mayor Rocky Anderson’s campaign for a third term more than a decade after he left that office.

For him, the past two mayoral administrations have exaggerated the estimated costs and water usage. He said there have not been attempts to get private funding to restore the fountain either.

“Having that as a dry fixture is an insult to everyone who conceived, worked on and financed the Seven Canyons Fountain,” Anderson said this week. “And it’s an insult to families now and for generations to come that ought to be enjoying the Seven Canyons Fountain as it was originally conceived and constructed.”

During his administration, health concerns arose when fecal bacteria showed up in the water, he said, which prompted his team to install a filter.

“It never even occurred to us that we wouldn’t simply do what was required to solve the problem,” he said, “and get it back up and running.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City announced it will reimagine Seven Canyons Fountain in Liberty Park into a dry art feature, pictured Wednesday, March 29, 2023.

For Mendenhall’s office, however, the fountain’s restoration is more complicated than that.

Spokesperson Andrew Wittenberg said climate change and the West’s overall drought make it infeasible to funnel millions of gallons of water a year to the attraction.

“Certainly everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, this is about how we can best utilize this cherished piece of our city.”

The city also points to changes in the park’s ecosystem. It switched to using secondary water for irrigation in Liberty Park some years ago. So untreated water used to irrigate the grass and trees could end up in the fountain — giving rise to another safety consideration.

Lifeguards would be needed as well, Wittenberg said, to meet a Salt Lake County Health Department requirement for publicly funded pools with water greater than 2 inches in depth.

“We’re assured that the cost would be sizable, and we believe the estimates to be accurate,” he said. “When you think about millions of gallons of water each year, when you think about the health hazards that Salt Lake County’s Health Department has noted in years past, this certainly seems like the best path forward to be able to preserve this as a piece of public art.”

A possible water transition

(Ryan Galbraith | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Seven Canyons Fountain in Liberty Park in 2006.

Stephen Goldsmith, one of the designers of the amenity and the city’s planning director under Anderson, was there from the beginning, visiting each of the real canyons — City Creek, Red Butte, Emigration, Parleys, Mill Creek, and Big and Little Cottonwood — and tagging stones to bring down to the park to re-create the canyons’ real geology.

He still takes pride in having been part of this creation and, along with the architect of the original project, Liz Blackner, is in the process of contracting with the city to contribute to a design that could reincorporate water in the future.

Bringing water back sustainably would be possible, he said, because the sump for the fountain is not much bigger than one for a regular hot tub.

“I know that with political will we can find creative responses to this challenge,” he said. “There are water features that are being managed all around the world that actually have people playing in them. And I’m confident that we have enough intellectual capital within Salt Lake City to create a water feature that also can be celebrating water.”

While the city conducted studies for the dry art feature, Goldsmith said he worked on a prototype to reduce the fountain’s water use by 90%.

“We were quite surprised during our meeting last week,” he said, “when, even after demonstrating that we can do this 90% reduction, today we’re going to continue to make it a dry water [feature].”

The original fountain included a cistern to capture, clean and recirculate water — a system that could be reused. There may also be a way to capture rainwater and use it, Goldsmith said. The goal would be to have water running for about 10 hours a day for a few months of the year.

“Salt Lake City is an oasis on the edge of the desert,” Goldsmith said. “And celebrating our water city named after water seems very important.”