The water towers of San Diego

College Heights, Loma Citas, Coronado, University Heights

College Heights. “If it was built today, they’d weld the plates together just like the new standpipes.”

College Heights. “If it was built today, they’d weld the plates together just like the new standpipes.”

The day I drove out to look at the Loma Citas water tower the weather was hot and hazy. I had never been to see the tower before, but I didn’t have any trouble finding it: it rises some fifty feet above a cluster of sleek, ranch-style homes alongside the South Bay Freeway, just east of Reo Drive near Bonita. When I got my first glimpse of it, the tower immediately reminded me of the head of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, but the longer I looked at it the more it resembled the body of a plump insect caught in a spider’s web. Supported by four spindly legs, it stands on a hill overlooking a big stretch of undeveloped hills and canyons; but all along the South Bay Freeway are signs for new housing tracts — Meadowview, Vista del Lago, Bay View Homes — and it won’t be long before this undeveloped land will fill in with houses, too. When it does, the Loma Citas water tower will be tom down and replaced by a few big cylindrical tanks to be built on a bluff a quarter mile or so to the east, according to Al Sorenson. Sorenson is the operations manager for the Sweetwater Water Authority, which owns and maintains the Loma Citas elevated tank (as he calls the tower), so he ought to know. “I would expect that tank to be removed probably within the next year to eighteen months,” he had told me when I contacted him by phone a few days earlier. Under the circumstances, the Loma Citas elevated tank resembled not only an insect or the head of the Tin Man, but exactly what it was: one of the last of a vanishing breed of water towers.

I have a place in my heart for just about any breed that is vanishing, and had made up my mind to find out as much as I could about water towers. Right away I learned that what they’re all about — I mean besides being there for kids illegally to climb and scrawl graffiti on — is equal pressure. Look at it this way: say there was one big reservoir for the entire San Diego area and that it was located somewhere near Alpine. Well, the people in Alpine would have water pressure that was okay, but the people who live on the coast, 1800 feet lower than Alpine, would have water pressure so strong it would blow them right out of their houses. That’s because water pressure increases nearly a half pound per square inch with each foot gained in elevation, and a half pound multiplied by 1800 equals a jet stream coming out of your faucet.

Coronado.  “We keep it full all the time, and right now we’ve got about eighty pounds of pressure comin’ out of there.”

Coronado. “We keep it full all the time, and right now we’ve got about eighty pounds of pressure comin’ out of there.”

But on the other hand, say that you built water towers all around the area and you pumped water into them. Each tower would supply a different part of the city with water, and everyone would have equal pressure. You take it for granted now, sure; but if you had lived in Mission Beach in 1939, for instance, you probably would have been one of the people who complained to the city about water pressure that was too high — an item that made the pages of the San Diego Union at the time. After investigating, the city concluded there was only one answer: build a water tower nearby.

What you and I call water towers are known more properly to engineers as standpipes and elevated tanks. Standpipes are the big metal cylinders you see on hilltops around town — glorified tin cans.

But elevated tanks, tanks on top of steel legs, are the Cadillacs of the local water storage system. They can resemble everything from giant golf balls on giant tees to the robots in War of the Worlds. But although elevated tanks come in a variety of intriguing shapes, they’re also becoming rarer, at least locally. There are only four elevated tanks in the county (not counting small, private ones like those at General Dynamics on Kearny Mesa and at Camp Pendleton), and they were all built between 1924 and 1941. Since then, the several dozen water towers built here have all been standpipes, and they’re all distressingly similar: big green metal cylinders.

Loma Citas. “I used to crawl around on top of the Loma Citas tank; as small as it was, I was always afraid it would fall apart.”

Loma Citas. “I used to crawl around on top of the Loma Citas tank; as small as it was, I was always afraid it would fall apart.”

“Technically, any architectural concept could be worked into a water tank,” says Harry Horn, the senior civil engineer in charge of planning for San Diego’s water utilities department. “If you want to make it look like a Grecian temple, you can do it. And someone who’s very proud of his design might want a tank to stick out boldly, serve as a landmark kind of a thing. But they cost money. So the question is, does your design serve the interests of the ratepayer or are you trying to win an award and get your name in lights?”

Making it clear he considers serving the ratepayer more important than getting your name in lights, Horn, who along with his assistants reviews and approves all plans for water towers to be built in San Diego, explained that elevated tanks are built only where extra elevation is needed to deliver decent water pressure to the surrounding neighborhoods. They’re still built in some parts of the country, he said, but San Diego’s hilly terrain makes them almost obsolete here. Why build a tank with legs if you can get away with building just a tank? Horn said the cylindrical shape of standpipes is also efficient for drainage and distributes stress well, but Al Sorenson summed it up another way. “They’re cheaper,” he said, adding that standpipes are usually bigger than elevated tanks, and “bigger tanks are more cost effective now.”

University Heights. Largest of them all, it looms above the intersection of Idaho Street and Howard Avenue.

University Heights. Largest of them all, it looms above the intersection of Idaho Street and Howard Avenue.

Cost effective, maybe, but not much to look at. The county’s four elevated tanks, on the other hand, all have distinct personalities. The Loma Citas tank is the smallest of them. “It only holds 15,000 gallons,” Sorenson told me. “About as much as a swimming pool.” It was built in 1934 for the Sweetwater Fruit Company. Better known for its guava jelly, the fruit company also built houses and had its own water company, and commissioned the Chicago Bridge and Iron Works to build the tank for a new housing development. In 1948 the tank (along with the rest of the water company) was purchased by the California Water and Telephone Company and moved to its current location, about thirty-five feet higher and 2000 feet north of its original site. (Later, the tank was purchased by the Califomia-American Water Company, and later still, in 1977, it was taken over by the new Sweetwater Water Authority.)

“I used to crawl around on top of the Loma Citas tank; as small as it was, I was always afraid it would fall apart,” said Rudy Leisch. Leisch works for the Califomia-American Water Company, which supplies water to Coronado and Imperial Beach. When Califomia-American still owned the Loma Citas tank, Leisch was a mechanic for the company and had to climb the tank periodically for maintenance. Now Leisch is the distribution superintendent for Califomia-American. and the company no longer owns the Loma Citas tank; but it does own one other elevated tank, a spectacular, half-million-gallon structure in Coronado, at the edge of the San Diego Bay. The tank, which is one of those that reminds me of the robots in War of the Worlds, dominates the Coronado skyline from the San Diego side of the bay. Built by the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Company, manufacturers of steel structures, the Coronado elevated tank is fifty-five feet in diameter, 128 feet high, and was completed on September 12, 1941. It must have meant a lot to the citizens of Coronado at the time, but its opening was apparently overshadowed by the news of war in Europe and China, because there is no mention of it in the newspapers of the era.

Today, two standpipes supply the residents of Coronado and Imperial Beach with water most of the time. “But we still use the elevated tank as a backup,” Leisch assured me. Califomia-American has no plans to decommission it, he added. “We keep it full all the time, and right now we’ve got about eighty pounds of pressure comin’ out of there.”

Eighty pounds is good, strong water pressure, and a little higher than the sixty-five pounds that the City of San Diego tries to supply to its residents. The city owns the only other two elevated tanks in the county, and the largest of them, the University Heights elevated tank, has a capacity of 1,200,000 gallons. It is essentially a bigger version of the Loma Citas tank, but with spectacular results; it looms above the intersection of Idaho Street and Howard Avenue in North Park, as Harry Horn might say, like a landmark kind of a thing. Viewed objectively, the tank resembles nothing so much as the nosecone of a huge rocket ship about to blast off into space. It is big enough to have a basketball court beneath it, and there is in fact a backboard and hoop fastened to the inside of one of the tank’s twelve massive steel legs. (The court is presumably for the use of the city’s maintenance crews, since it is surrounded by a fence with a locked gate. A sign on the gate says: “PLEASE” KEEP GATE LOCKED AT ALL TIME!)

The University Heights elevated tank was built in 1924 by the Pittsburgh-Des Moines Company, and when the company drew up the final plan in 1923 it was called simply “Plan of Water Tower.” The oldest and largest water tower in the county that is still in use, it has been giving residents of North Park reliable water pressure continuously for fifty-seven years, except for times like last winter when its control valve stuck. In that incident, vandals somehow managed to break into the underground vault housing the valve, and jammed it. The tank, already full, began filling some more. By the time Ira Pendleton arrived on the scene with a repair crew, water was gurgling out of the air vents at the top of the tank and pouring down the sides “just like an umbrella,” Pendleton recalls, pronouncing the word as if it has four syllables, umba-rella. “It was flooding down into the surrounding streets, sprayin’ just like a big umba-rella.” Pendleton, the city’s senior water utilities supervisor in charge of water tanks, recently agreed to show me the College Heights elevated tank, the only elevated tank in the county I hadn't yet seen. I met him one morning not long ago in his office at the city’s Chollas substation, near College Grove Shopping Center, and soon we were in his truck, driving east on University Avenue toward the College Heights tank, which is located near the comer of Seventieth Street and El Cajon Boulevard. Along the way, Pendleton told me he oversees a force of twenty-two people who do nothing but check up on the city’s water towers. There are pump crews, tank maintenance crews, even gardening crews. “Most of our tanks are located in residential neighborhoods, so we try to keep them as commensurate with the neighborhood as possible,” he said.

Like the University Heights elevated tank, the College Heights tank is surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire. We parked next to it and walked into the yard after Pendleton had unlocked the gate. “We have to keep the gate locked in case kids get in, which they often do,” he explained. “Usually they just climb around; or most of the time they write, you know, graffiti on the side of the tank, or pelt it with rocks.”

From below, the College Heights tank looks like a big green pumpkin on legs, with lines of rivets radiating outward from the center. It was built in 1938 at a cost of about $70,000, and it has a capacity of a half million gallons. A tall green stem seems to support the tank in the middle, but this is really the riser pipe through which the tank is drained and filled. As Pendleton and I came closer we could see stenciled on the pipe in black letters: Painted by City Forces Dark Green Alumizol Two Coats 12/63

“Do you suppose we could climb to the top?” I asked Pendleton. He looked surprised, but he agreed. There was a steel ladder in place on the outside of the tank. A grate was locked over it to prevent people from climbing, but Pendleton unlocked it and led the way to a small platform about twenty feet up. We continued on up the ladder until we reached a narrow walkway that ran around the tank's middle, about fifty feet above the ground, and we stopped there, breathing hard. “You can see it takes a little muscle to get up one of these things,” Pendleton said.

Eucalyptus trees surround the College Heights tank and nearly hide it, but we were above the tops of them now and we could see far into the distance. To the west, the Redwood Village standpipe stood out prominently on a hilltop, and to the east we could see another one of the city’s standpipes. College Ranch, a mile or so away. We started to walk around the tank, but Pendleton stopped and ran his hand over a row of the big, round, three-quarter-inch rivets. “This was built before they had the new welding system,” he remarked. “If it was built today, they’d weld the plates together just like the new standpipes.”

We walked around the tank until we were back at the ladder, and there Pendleton told me that the very peak of the tank was dome-shaped and had an air vent on it. He must have seen me eyeing the ladder that led up there, too, because a moment later he said with a smile, “You can go up there if you want. You’re this close. ...” I climbed the ladder, which curved over the top of the tank. When I got to the top I could see the air vent, spinning in the breeze, and beyond it I could see cars zooming along Interstate 8. North of the freeway was a building that said “Skating Rink” on it, and in the distance rose Cowles Mountain, shimmering in the midday heat. In the other direction, a few blocks away, a woman in white shorts was walking up the sidewalk, carrying a baby in her arms. It was a little scary being up so high with nothing to hold on to except the rungs of the ladder, and after a few minutes I climbed down. I was grinning like a kid, and Pendleton said, “You can really see a long way from up here.” We stood there for a moment, enjoying the view: Two men on top of a big steel pumpkin that was supplying the houses nearby with water at sixty-five pounds of pressure, just the way it was designed.

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