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Taxpayer dollars flowing from city's majestic fountains

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, working on a reputation as a conservation-minded mayor, offers tips to city residents for saving water -- like installing low-flow showerheads and fixing leaky faucets to stop the needless waste of gallons that can go down the drain . But there's another no-no that might be included on the list: city fountains that send massive amounts of water every day directly into the sewer.

The majestic sprays of Boston's decorative fountains may be visions to behold, but few people realize that nine of 24 fountains in the city do not circulate water, meaning turning them on is like opening a faucet and letting it run.

City officials say they are not sure exactly how much water is draining away. But they estimate the waste could be costing taxpayers thousands of dollars each year. The Parks Department, which maintains the fountains, says replacing the plumbing to circulate runoff would cost as much as $1.6 million for all nine fountains.

"It's a grand idea," department spokeswoman Mary Hines said. "It's just getting up the money to do it."

Conservation advocates were flabbergasted that such blatant waste has gone unaddressed . They say the expense of fixing the fountains would be worth the water it saved -- and could be paid back in water-bill savings.

"It doesn't make any sense," said David Kaplan, water resources specialist at the Charles River Watershed Association. "It's just an irresponsible thing."

Most of Boston's non circulating fountains date to the mid-1800s, when water conservation was virtually unheard of.

Then, fashionable couples strolled through the city's new public parks and squares seeking respite from an increasingly crowded city, according to Boston College historian Thomas H. O'Connor.

In the Public Garden, Triton Babies is one of four non circulating fountains whose granite basins and plumbing were installed in 1861, parks officials say.

The Boy and the Bird, Small Child, Bagherra, and the Triton Babies spout water into large pools on each side of Garden entrances on Charles and Arlington streets.

In the South End, noncirculating fountains were installed in Blackstone and Franklin squares in 1849. The majestic cast-iron founts shoot water more than 3 feet into the air over wide basins in the center of the squares at Washington and Brookline streets.

In the Back Bay Fens, a noncirculating fountain was installed in the Rose Garden in 1931. Parks officials say it is turned on only for special occasions such as the mayor's annual garden party. There are plans to retrofit the fountain, along with the massive Brewer Fountain on Boston Common, which dates to 1868, in the near future. Parks officials say they have raised about $400,000 from private sources and still need about another $450,000 to complete the projects.

One noncirculating fountain, at Thompson Square in Charlestown, was built in 1992 and includes a timer to shut off water flow at night and in the winter. Parks officials say the granite art piece -- "a water element invoking Charlestown's link to the ocean" -- uses only a trickle of water.

Retrofitting the city's fountains to recycle water would involve delicate removal of the statues and artwork to install pipes, recirculating pumps, and filtering systems, officials say. "It has to be done by people who know what they're doing," Hines said.

The city has retrofitted several fountains, but only with private donors' help, she said. In the South End, friends groups raised money to renovate fountains in Union Park and Worcester Square, and in the Public Garden, a friends group and medical professional associations raised $600,000 to overhaul the Ether Monument, a tribute to the discovery of ether as an anesthetic.

Hines said the city hopes more friends groups will step forward to help retrofit the other fountains .

Menino, a self-described "nut for fountains," said through a spokeswoman yesterday that the city is "working on it."

"Our priority for the summer is to make sure they're working properly and turned on for residents and visitors alike," he said, according to spokeswoman Dot Joyce.

In the meantime, the city continues to spend taxpayer dollars on water. Hines said the fountains are not metered so officials cannot tell how much water they use. The city's water bill, which includes water used to irrigate playing fields and parks and supply drinking-water fountains, totaled $395,000 in fiscal 2006.

At the Public Garden, many admirers this week said they were surprised the fountains do not re use water.

"They don't recycle it?" asked Donna Francis, a visibly stunned visitor from North Carolina admiring Bagherra on Monday.

"That's a no-brainer," said Tony Molica, a New Hampshire resident standing nearby.

There were some, though, who understood the challenge.

"I could see why it's not being done immediately," said Nell Peiken, sitting with her husband Monday afternoon on a bench next to The Boy and the Bird .

"It's a lot easier to keep the status quo."

"Really?" her husband answered , noting that she is a stickler about his turning off the water when brushing his teeth.

"I guess compared to the fountains, it seems less wasteful," Peiken replied.

"But only marginally."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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