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Plans to reopen Huntington Beach’s Adventure Playground dry up as drought drags on

 Huntington Beach's Adventure Playground, seen June 22, 2022, will remain closed due to the state water conservation orders.
Typically teeming with water features, Adventure Playground in Huntington Beach’s Central Park on Wednesday was bone dry, thanks to state orders asking local agencies to conserve water during a drought.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Located in Huntington Beach’s Central Park, Adventure Playground has beckoned generations of children to build, play and imagine in a rustic wonderland created for the rough-and-tumble sort.

The 1.5-acre lot affords young explorers the opportunity to build onto a treehouse fort with basic tools and pieces of plywood, navigate a rope bridge over a lagoon, captain wooden rafts across a moat and barrel down a mud slide into a pool of water.

“It’s a far cry from the modern-day playground,” explained Chris Cole, a facility and events manager for Huntington Beach who oversees operations at the park. “It really is designed to stimulate imagination and creativity. It’s a place where kids are welcome to get dirty.”

Adventure Playground in Huntington Beach, seen in 2011.
Adventure Playground, seen in 2011, usually lets kids try pond rafting, a ropes course and sliding down the mud slide. But this year, the watery park will remain closed due to a statewide drought.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Open seasonally from mid-June to mid-September for a $4 admission price, Adventure Playground remained shuttered for two years during the pandemic but was gearing up for a grand reopening Monday when another bombshell dropped.

California’s State Water Resources Control Board in late May declared a statewide Level 2 water shortage, ordering local agencies to reduce water use by up to 20% and adhere to a series of mandates set to take effect June 10.

In addition to banning the irrigation of non-functional turf in commercial and industrial areas and limiting all irrigation to 10 minutes, officials prohibited the refilling of ornamental lakes and ponds beyond levels required to sustain aquatic life.

Chris Cole, a facilities and events manager for Huntington Beach, at the city's Adventure Playground, June 22, 2022.
Chris Cole, a facilities and events manager for Huntington Beach, stands near a dry lagoon Wednesday at the city’s Adventure Playground.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“California is facing a drought crisis, and every local water agency and Californian needs to step up on conservation efforts,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said following the May 24 order.

The decree did not bode well for Adventure Playground, which uses non-recirculated potable water from Central Park’s irrigation system and requires daily topping off, according to Cole.

Drought-minded city officials initially planned on running tests to determine the site’s consumption and see if the reopening might go ahead as planned but eventually determined even that would take too much water.

“We just decided collectively it would be sending the wrong message to open up the playground,” Cole said. “Although Huntington Beach is in a better situation [than many cities], we need to stay aligned with the conservation efforts the state has put forth.”

A visitor to Huntington Beach's Adventure Playground in 2011 is drenched in muddy water.
A visitor to Huntington Beach’s Adventure Playground in 2011 is drenched in muddy water, a signature feature of the 1.5-acre site. City officials recently announced the Central Park attraction would not reopen Monday as planned.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The news came as a bit of a blow to Brock Snook, pastor of the nondenominational church Branches HB, who has fond memories of taking his five children to Adventure Playground years ago and was poised to celebrate its long-awaited reopening with his 15 grandchildren.

“My kids just loved it — they called it the mud park,” the 60-year-old Fountain Valley resident recalled. “We had a place where we could go for the summer, and it was inexpensive. Was there a chance of a bruise or a scratch? Yeah, maybe, but that’s part of being a kid.”

Snook is part of Serve City, a nonprofit collaboration of 16 Huntington Beach churches whose members pool resources to complete projects for city schools and organizations. This spring, the group set its sights on the playground.

Kids play at Adventure Playground in Huntington Beach in 2011.
Kids navigate a muddy pond at Adventure Playground in Huntington Beach in 2011. Shuttered for two pandemic years, the site was due to reopen Monday, but state drought orders caused conscientious city officials to keep it closed in 2022.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

They constructed rafts and platforms and prepared the space for Monday’s reopening. Snook admitted he was crestfallen to learn he and his grandkids would have to wait another year to enjoy the fruits of that labor.

“I get it,” he said Thursday. “It’s a bummer, but I get it.”

While Huntington Beach city officials exercise discretion, other Orange County municipalities and agencies that oversee public splash pads and park water features say that, for the meantime, they plan to keep the tap on.

In Fullerton, where residents must limit outdoor watering to three days per week, heat-weary denizens may cool off at four seasonal splash pools and water jet areas at Adelana, Lemon and Valencia parks and in the city’s Downtown Plaza, according to city spokeswoman Anissa Livas.

The features run daily June 4 through Aug. 28, with weekend operations through Sept. 25.

A dry mud slide attraction at Huntington Beach's Adventure Playground, Wednesday, June 22, 2022.
A mud slide attraction at Huntington Beach’s Adventure Playground sits dry and unused Wednesday, as the site remains closed for the third year in a row.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“It’s a quality-of-life thing,” Livas said of the amenities, which use recirculated water. “It can be really hot in summertime, and we want to offer residents a place where they can cool down and spend time with their families.”

Since state mandates don’t explicitly prohibit public water features that provide a community benefit, the splash pools will stay on for now, though Livas acknowledged that could change if restrictions tighten.

Another local splash pad, at the county-owned Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley, has been operating since the 1970s. Located next to North Lake, the summertime feature is open weekends, from noon to 4 p.m.

“Water is supplied from Fountain Valley Water Department,” OC Parks spokeswoman Danielle Kennedy wrote in an email. “[It] drains directly into the North Lake and helps to keep the North Lake at proper levels.”

Like Livas, Kennedy said the agency will keep the splash pad open but continue to monitor usage while complying with state and local guidelines.

Meanwhile, Cole remains optimistic about the future of Adventure Playground.

“We’ve made the investment, and the work that’s been done out there is really solid craftsmanship,” he said. “We expect that investment to reap benefits for years and years to come.”

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