A costly tactic in Mayor R.T. Rybak's campaign to stimulate demand for city water has kicked up some dust inside and outside City Hall.

During the Aquatennial festival that begins Friday, the city plans to unveil concepts for 10 artist-designed drinking fountains that Rybak championed at $50,000 each. Typical park fountains cost as little as $6,000.

Rybak described his proposal as an out-of-the-box method for promoting flagging city water consumption, both for nostalgic reasons and hard-headed water financial imperatives.

The city is also awarding a $180,000 contract for a marketing campaign on behalf of city water, to be paid from water bills. And it has hired a consultant for almost $50,000 to develop a strategy for approaching suburbs about using more city water.

The City Council eventually gave unanimous approval to the $500,000 fountain plan to be paid half from water bills and half from property taxes. But initial reaction was skeptical and opposition persists.

Lisa McDonald, a former council member who ran against Rybak and is no foe of the arts, is among those critical of the fountain plan.

"When you're in a situation the city is in, which is underfunded public safety and street repairs, then I question why we're doing that," she said. She's skeptical that drinking fountains will stimulate demand: "If you want people to buy water, you price it accordingly."

But Rybak said city water has to be promoted if the city is going to line up more than the seven suburban cities that now buy about 22 percent of city water. He said that increased demand will help dampen the city's rising water rates caused by investments in new technology such as ultrafiltration.

The campaign also fits into Rybak's outspoken efforts to promote tap water as a economical and environmentally friendly alternative to expensive bottled water. That campaign took a hit last week when water in many city homes and businesses developed an unpleasant stench.

City officials assured residents the odor posed no health risk, but said it could take several weeks to clear.

But Mary Altman said that the investment has to be considered as part of the city's public arts program, which she runs. Each year, a small percentage of the city's property tax-supported bonding program is devoted to public artwork. That's paid for such projects as artist-designed manhole covers and bus benches, and larger neighborhood-inspired gateways.

The new fountains are being constructed of durable materials that meet plumbing codes, and should last for 25 years, Altman said.

"These artworks are a great bang for the buck," she said.

The city picked 10 areas for the fountains, focusing on areas with high pedestrian traffic and a private party willing to perform daily cleaning and annual draining and recharging of water lines. The latter requirement relieved council members aware that most of the irrigation systems that city has installed at selected boulevards and medians have gone dry as key parts break because of a crunch in operating money at the Public Works Department.

Artistic inspiration

Rybak said he came up with the fountain campaign after hearing through his wife about a focus at In the Heart of the Beast theater on water. Rybak said he wants bubbling, gurgling fountains reminiscent of the kind he drank from as a kid growing up in the city.

"I want that romance of water in a city of waters to be something that's just core to living in our city," he said.

The first fountain will be installed on Franklin Avenue near the public library. Designs for the fountains will be unveiled on July 22.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438