The $4.5 million water feature at Martin Luther King Jr. Park was meant to pay homage to Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for the space with a reflecting pool in the spring and fall, a splash pad in the summer and an ice rink in the winter.
The five-acre Humboldt Basin, which contains 350 fountain heads that spray water, opened in May 2013.
But since then, there have been problems at the basin, including a water line break, a narrow crack about 12 feet long in the concrete surface, trouble with the sewer line and drainage difficulties.
Repairs have totaled $479,407.
Now, a drainage issue has shut down 30 fountain heads predominantly located in one section of the basin, said Andrew R. Rabb, deputy commissioner of parks. The other affected spray jets are scattered around the perimeter of the splash pad.
All of the spray heads were recently tested and work properly, Rabb said, but the 30 affected water jets will remain turned off so city workers can evaluate the source of the problem without turning off the entire water feature.
“It’s still summer, and we don’t want to do that,” Rabb said of shutting down the splash pad.
The 30 fountain heads have been turned off since the Fourth of July.
“This drainage issue didn’t manifest itself until we were well underway for the season, and we don’t want to shut down the facility,” Rabb said. “But we are looking into what the cause of the drainage issue is and will take action to resolve the situation once we have finally determined what it is.”
Rabb said the water feature at MLK Park has “been operating more than not.”
“A mechanical system as large as the basin is going to require periodic systems work,” Rabb said.
Samuel A. Herbert, chairman of the Coalition to Save MLK Park and a longtime advocate of the park's water feature, estimates that 45 to 50 percent of the jets are down, mostly concentrated in the one section.
“People don’t know they aren’t getting the full effect,” he said.
The operational spray heads are programmed to intermittently turn on and off to create an effect, Rabb said, “so it could look like more features are off than actually are. It has nothing to do with the drainage issue.”
Cynthia Beard said she was very impressed with the splash pad on a recent afternoon there with her three grandchildren – ages 6, 4 and 1.
“It’s good for the kids,” said Beard, who moved to Buffalo from Erie, Pa., about a month ago.
Rabb said the city has invested more than $10 million in the park for the basin, playgrounds and shelters, the casino building, general pathway lighting and other improvements at MLK Park.
Despite the investments, there have been problems at the basin.
Partial reconstruction of a sewer line began in one section of the basin in April, Rabb said.
The timing and origin of the initial backup is unclear, he added.
The repairs – which cost $204,357 – were completed in May in time for the Memorial Day weekend opening of the city's splash pads.
The sewer line problem was not the source of the current drainage issues, Rabb said.
Cracks in the “super crack-resistant” concrete surface – including a narrow one about 12 feet long – were discovered in December 2013. The concrete, which had never been used in Western New York before, was the most expensive part of the water feature, consuming 60 percent of the budget, Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak said at the time.
A “dramatically” reduced number of joints was the reason officials gave for the cracks. The project had originally called for much smaller panels, which are closer together but less visually appealing and more expensive. Using fibers to reinforce the concrete offered the opportunity to use larger panels with fewer joints and to save money, according to the supplier.
Some surface cracking is generally associated with large concrete structures like the water feature at MLK Park, but they are not necessarily damaging to the basin and do not compromise its use, officials say.
In July 2014, low water pressure in some of the spray jets alerted city workers of a water line break underneath the surface, Rabb said.
"We had to reconstruct a section of the water line that failed," he said.