Stranded in the desert, this city has always had to import its goods and trappings, be they sushi-grade tuna or palm trees trucked in to exude paradise. But a new import is audacious even by Las Vegas standards: water that serves no purpose other than coursing through decorative fountains, gurgling and then evaporating into dry air.

This year, southern Nevada water regulators levied strict limits on ornamental fountains as part of an aggressive and largely successful conservation effort. The rules upset shopping center developers, who use fountains to break up the otherwise endless horizon of rocky crags and chain stores on the outskirts of town.

At the upscale Boca Park shopping center, Barry Bender decided to take a stand. Bender, a vice president of Triple Five Nevada, the center's developer, began hauling in truckloads of water from Canada and the Northwest and dumping them into his decorative fountains.

At a cost of as much as $20,000 a month, tens of thousands of gallons of water have been poured into three fountains. The move abides, technically, by the water rules, which state only that water for fountains cannot be drawn from underground pipes. When the water evaporates, which can take as little as three days under the summer sun, Triple Five fills the fountains again.

Signs around Boca Park read: "The water in this fountain is not from the state of Nevada or the Colorado River basin. It is imported."

Several other development companies, after learning of Triple Five's ploy, have followed suit.

Bender said he understands that conservation is critical in the fast-growing Las Vegas area. But, he said, the water his fountains lose to evaporation is "infinitesimal" compared with the water used by other businesses, such as golf courses. And developers of shopping centers, he said, are victims of a double standard inasmuch as the conservation rules do not apply to the large casinos and resorts on the Las Vegas Strip.

That includes the swanky Bellagio, home to a $40 million fountain that "dances" to Luciano Pavarotti singing "Rondine al Nido" and Frank Sinatra's "Luck Be a Lady." The water shoots more than 200 feet into the air, much of it landing on the adjacent sidewalk or disappearing.

The largest Boca Park fountain is about 15 feet in diameter and contains a single geyser that rises less than 10 feet above the surface.

"We felt picked on, so to speak," Bender said. "We sought an alternate solution."

The Strip resorts are exempt from the restrictions for two reasons, said Vince Alberta, a spokesman for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which establishes water policy, and the Las Vegas Valley Water District, which provides water to the city and the surrounding unincorporated county.

First, most of the water used on the Strip for decorative fountains and waterfalls is either groundwater or recycled water, which is less heavily regulated. Second, the success of the Strip is critical in shoring up the rest of the region's economy, Alberta said.

Trucking in water to small businesses with decorative fountains, he said, is technically legal.

"The ultimate goal is to conserve Colorado River water," Alberta said. "That's what we're trying to achieve. They have found a creative way to do that."

Residential consumers, who must abide by their own conservation regulations, will have to decide whether they want to patronize shopping centers that truck in water to get around the rules, Alberta said.

On a recent afternoon, customers at Boca Park said they were torn.

"I'm a water hog myself. I let the water run when I'm brushing my teeth and stuff," Valerie Brown, 24, said. A cocktail waitress, Brown had just completed shopping at Boca Park and was waiting for her SUV at the valet stand.

"They should have more fountains," Brown said. "It's a desert, after all. It's nice to break it up."

Debbie Spero, 52, and Carol Abramson, 62, both Las Vegas teachers, were more critical. Their main objection, Spero said, was that the largest of the fountains at Boca Park does not provide much in the way of aesthetics.

"I don't think it does a whole lot for this complex," Spero said. "I look at it and look away, to be honest."

"Maybe they could fill it with pretty flowers," Abramson said.

"Or a nice tree," Spero said.

At the Boca Park shopping center, the decorative fountains are supplied by truckloads of water from Canada and the Northwest. The developer pays as much as $20,000 a month to keep the ornaments gushing.