Hearst Castle's Neptune Pool is drying up

Hearst Castle officials decide to stop filling leaky outdoor pool in response to deepening drought

betling@thetribunenews.comJanuary 29, 2014 

Hearst Castle visitors will soon find dusty buses, dry fountains and an empty pool, thanks to one of the worst droughts in California history.

Springs that supply the state historical monument are running at just one-sixth normal, said Nick Franco, superintendent of the San Luis Obispo Coast District of State Parks. Only 47,000 gallons a day now flow from the springs, which State Parks shares with the Hearst Ranch, down from a normal of 285,000 gallons a day in a normal year.

That means a trio of reservoirs that typically are filled with 2.75 million gallons of water this time of year are only about a third full, not enough to carry the Castle through the summer.

So it doesn’t make any sense to keep topping off the iconic, but leaky, outdoor
Neptune Pool, which loses 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of water a day through several cracks. The pool was started in the 1920s and underwent a couple of revisions not long after.

State Parks is putting the 345,000 gallons of water that were in the pool to good use. Connections have been made to the irrigation system and, starting Friday, water started flowing out of the pool and onto the landscape.

How long it takes to empty the 95-by-104-foot, marble-lined basin that’s as much as 10 feet deep depends on how much irrigation is needed, Franco said. On Monday, he estimated the pool was down 5 or 6 feet.

“You know the statue of Venus in the back with her rising out of the water?” he asked. “Well, she’s not in the water anymore.”

Also dry and quiet are the Castle’s six fountains, which usually provide an ambient sound of tinkling water for garden strollers. “They splash, lose water, not a lot,” Franco said. “But we want to save every drop we can.”

They’re also “doing triage on the perennials,” Franco said, “figuring out what can survive with very little water and what won’t, focusing on the landscape, how we can nurse it along.”

Usually this time of year State Parks brings in “thousands of annuals,” Franco said. Not this year. And they’re putting mulch on the landscaping to conserve as much water as possible.

State Parks vehicles are not getting washed, other than the windows, so buses shuttling visitors to the hilltop estate will be a bit dirty, Franco said.

The indoor Roman Pool will remain full, and will increase the availability of usable water, Franco said. The pool does not leak and, since it’s indoors, has very little moisture loss through evaporation.

But most importantly, a Castle staff member suggested using it to meet regulations requiring State Parks to keep 200,000 gallons of water stored on site in case of fire. Previously, the Castle had allocated reservoir storage to meet that requirement, but has borrowed a pump from the state Office of Emergency Services that can be used to pump Roman Pool water onto any fire. That frees up the reservoir water for use by visitors and on irrigation, Franco said.

Low-flow restroom fixtures were installed at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center during the most recent remodel, he said, but when you have 700,000 visitors annually, it’s still going to use a lot of water.

How long the outdoor Neptune Pool remains empty essentially “depends on the weather,” Franco said. Divers mapped cracks in the pool lining and plumbing last fall as part of a study that’s expected to be completed soon, mapping out what’s needed to fix it.

Once that’s complete, he can work on assessing costs and funding sources (likely state bond money) for repairs, Franco said. Once they’re complete, it will take some rain and rebound in spring flow before Venus’s feet are wet again.

For now, there’s a 4-foot-high metal fence ringing the pool, to make sure nobody falls into it.

Grumblings were heard already Tuesday as tour groups reached the much-diminished pool, its blue waters changing to a clear white as it nears bottom.

“I expect people will be disappointed,” Franco said, “but I think they will understand. Just look at the hills.”

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