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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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Tower power
Dane County has more water towers than any county in the state. And, it turns out, they serve more than one purpose

I am standing at the base of a tube under about 300,000 gallons of water. There is no significant risk involved in standing here, but there's no denying my irrational sense of vulnerability as I gaze up more than 100 feet at the tank holding all that water. What would happen if it all came cascading down at once?


My apprehension is swept away by Ron Rieder, Verona's public works director, who's invited me to his city for a primer on what he and his peers call elevated storage tanks.

There are more than 30 operating water towers in Dane County, plus a few old ones in Oregon, Sun Prairie and Waunakee that are no longer in service but still standing as community landmarks. Dane has more municipal water towers than any other county in Wisconsin, twice as many as Milwaukee County (although the towers there have an average capacity of more than one million gallons).

Water towers serve several important functions. They pressurize a municipality's water distribution system for residential, commercial and firefighter use. Most towers are between 100 and 170 feet high; every 2.3 feet in elevation adds about one pound of pressure. At 160 feet between its top water level and main, Verona's big tower generates up to 70 pounds of water pressure.

Towers also provide a supply of fresh water for emergency situations. They anchor communities and serve as visible manifestations of civic pride.

Driven by population and economic growth, water towers continue to sprout across the county's landscape. Cambridge, Madison, Sun Prairie, Verona and Waunakee have all added towers to their water distribution systems since the turn of the century. Mount Horeb built its second water tower in 2007. Stoughton plans to build its next one in 2010. Verona, notes Rieder, is preparing to build its third water tower next year.

"The backbone behind our community is our water system," he says. "If we did not have the infrastructure in place to provide fire-flow protection, those 3,500 jobs out at Epic wouldn't be there today."

In the last 10 years, Rieder adds, water towers have also become popular with cell-phone companies. Relay antennae for cellular communications accessorize both of Verona's current water towers. "It's a very good revenue source for our utility," he says. (He is unable to come up with a hard figure, but another source says the companies may pay as much as $20,000 per tower per year.)

Verona built its first water tower in 1933. It was taken down about 40 years later, replaced by this larger downtown tower built by Chicago Bridge & Iron. The city added a second 300,000-gallon water tower in 2002, to serve a different pressure zone. The next tower will serve yet another pressure zone, on the north side of town.

"It's probably going to be more like 500,000 gallons," says Rieder, his voice conveying a hint of pride.

Towering advantages

According to annual reports filed with the Public Service Commission last year by Dane County's municipal water utilities, the smallest water tower in Dane County is a 40,000-gallon tank in Cottage Grove. The largest is 750,000 gallons. There are two of these, one in McFarland, the other in Middleton. (Milwaukee, it should be noted, has a pair of two-million-gallon elevated tanks.)

Water towers are not cheap. Verona's second tower cost between $750,000 and $800,000 when it was built five years ago, Rieder estimates. This included a booster station to pump water up to the tank, pipes to connect the new water tower to Verona's water distribution system, and updates to the utility's computerized control system.

There are also procedural hurdles. Besides the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the Public Service Commission has regulatory jurisdiction over water towers (as well as standpipes and in-ground reservoirs). The Federal Aviation Administration must also sign off on the siting of elevated storage tanks.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources mandates that communities have about one day's supply of water on hand. It may be stored in reservoirs, elevated storage tanks and/or standpipes, a sister technology.

Thomas Stunkard, the DNR's public water supply engineer for Dane and Rock counties, says many people are confused about the difference between water towers and standpipes, which resemble grain silos.

"These towers might be 120 feet high," says Stunkard. "A lot of times you'll see these on hillsides, so they'll be able to use the elevation of the hill to give enough water pressure to the town." But as its water supply depletes, pressure declines.

And while ground-storage reservoirs can hold millions of gallons, Stunkard continues, they depend on booster pumps to pressurize water into the distribution system. Again, the advantage goes to water towers.

"Say there's a power outage," he says. "You may lose all the power in your house, but since this water is kept in an elevated tank, you still have water flowing."

This is why the DNR recommends that communities maintain, says Stunkard, "enough storage in elevated towers for fire protection and to meet their daily water demands."

That's not to say all of a municipality's water must be stored in water towers. Madison, says Stunkard, uses around 32 million gallons of water per day. "Well, they aren't going to have 32 million gallons of water up in elevated storage," he explains. Instead, the city might keep "somewhere around 34 million gallons in ground storage reservoirs, and have four or five elevated tanks to keep the pressure maintained throughout the system."

Water towers are a simple - maybe even elegant - way to pressurize a community's water distribution system. As their water levels fall, wells are triggered to replenish them.

This often happens during the morning, as a community awakens, showers, flushes toilets, brushes its teeth, brews coffee and rinses breakfast dishes. A municipality's storage capacity modulates this spike in demand, distributing it across the course of 24 hours.

Stunkard provides a list of elevated storage tanks in Dane County. He counts 36 (including five in Madison and four in Waunakee), along with 13 standpipes. The number of water towers in a county depends, in part, on population - and the way that population is distributed.

"I think Dane County is rich because you have so many municipalities," observes Stunkard, a 22-year DNR veteran. "I can only speak for Dane and Rock counties because those are the counties that I regulate, and I see more in Dane County than I do in Rock County."

It also depends on a community's tastes. "Some communities like elevated tanks because it gets the water up in towers and they have storage in case of emergencies," Stunkard says. "Other communities don't like 'em because they cost a lot to maintain."

Making them their own

The DNR requires that water towers be inspected every five years. This often involves hiring a firm like Pro-Dive Underwater Contractors out of Illinois.

"They literally bring in divers and go into your towers while they're still online," says Stunkard, adding that the divers are suited up and chlorinated to protect the water supply. They take underwater cameras and capture detailed recordings of a water tower's interior condition.

"It's kind of neat to watch these guys, because they kind of look like the old sponge divers - you know, with the huge underwater helmets and stuff," says Stunkard. "And they've got magnets so they can hold onto the side."

Water towers must also be repainted about once every 20 years, which Stunkard says can cost around $180,000 because of all of the regulations regarding this task. But for many communities it's worth it, because painting is one way to make water towers their own.

"It's just amazing what they'll paint on them," says Stunkard, whose office is adorned with photos of water towers. They are painted to resemble everything from balls, peaches and apples, to yellow smiley faces.

Dane County communities tend to be more conservative, putting only the name of their city or town on the spheroid, or perhaps the colors of the local high school.

"If you go out to Token Creek, I think that's probably one of the prettier ones," says Stunkard. "You go to Windsor and they have a picture of their town on it." He also likes the tower in Mount Horeb with a rosemaling design.

So familiar is Stunkard with the water towers in his jurisdiction that "when we fly, when we're coming into Dane County I'll know exactly where we are because I know all the water towers around."

Stunkard has a photo of a water tower bearing the logo of Cabela's, the sporting-goods retail chain. But most local communities are averse to letting their towers be used for advertising.

Rieder notes that a number of communities have added fences and other security measures to protect their towers, given their inherent value and the perception in some quarters that they are vulnerable terrorist targets.

Verona's towers are already secured by special locks. "I think they will be fenced in the future," he says. "But at this time we haven't opted to fence them off. Some of that's just me. I think, esthetically, it looks like heck. And quite honestly, if someone wanted to contaminate that facility, they're gonna cut that fence anyway. I hate to say that, but it's a piece of your infrastructure that [terrorists] are probably as familiar with as I am."

In 1982, when Rieder started his career at Verona's public works department, a plethora of mercury switches controlled the city's water distribution system. Today, this is all done by computer. "Our operators take a laptop home," he says, "and if we get any kind of alarm on our system, it's there."

Anyone who trespasses on or tampers with a community's water tower is committing a federal offense, Stunkard notes. This goes for mischievous kids as well as terrorists.

"I hear kids say, boy, it would be really neat to go swim in one of those reservoirs, and I go, you wouldn't last long in 55 degrees. Go jump in 55 degrees and tell me how much you like it. And furthermore, if we catch you, that's a federal offense. You won't be dealing with the state. You'll be dealing with the feds."

Pride and prejudice

Dennis Cawley, a Madison water utility engineer for 35 years, says the city's oldest water tower is by Lake View Woods on the north side, overlooking Warner Park. The 55,000-gallon tower was inherited from Dane County in 1971.

The water tower off Prairie Road was built in 1976, adding 100,000 gallons of elevated storage to the system. The 250,000-gallon High Point water tower was added in 1988, followed by the 500,000-gallon High Crossing water tower in 1994 and the 500,000-gallon Sprecher tower in 2001.

"We're looking at a couple of possibilities" for additional water towers, says Cawley. The Elver Park area is one candidate because "the southwest side of the city is growing faster than we anticipated when we put up the Prairie Road tower."

Madison has a long-standing disinclination to celebrate itself with colorful schemes on its water towers. "The story I was told was that the board of water commissioners thought painting your name or school emblem was kind of a small-town thing," says Cawley.

The village of Oregon in southeastern Dane County built its first water tower, a 15,000-gallon wooden structure on Janesville Street, in 1898. It was replaced in 1921 by a 30,000-gallon steel tank.

Oregon's next tower, with a 400,000-gallon capacity, went up in what was then the town of Fitchburg, in the mid-1970s. The water tower on South Main, also 400,000 gallons, was added in 1981. The village added another tower in 1990, serving a part of the community at an elevation too high for the other two towers to pressurize.

Mark Below, Oregon's public works director since 1993, moved to Oregon with his parents in 1961. He recalls taking notice of what was then Oregon's only water tower.

"It didn't really mean anything to me at the time," he says. But over the years, his appreciation has grown: "I like the architecture, absolutely."

The Janesville Street tower was taken out of service in 1981, but remains standing. "It was declared a local cultural landmark by the village board on May 21, 1984," Below notes. He adds that there is some sentiment to restore the old Janesville Street tower.

"The historical preservation commission would like to see - and I would like to personally see - the tower redone," he says. "One of the problems is it's expensive. It's extremely expensive, because it's got lead-based paint on it."

One contractor has put the total cost at about $250,000 - the sort of price tag that renders the project a long-range goal for Oregon.

Below admires Sun Prairie's well-preserved stone-and-steel water tower. Designed by architect Frank Stegerwald and built in 1899, it still stands in the center of a traffic roundabout at the intersection of Church, Cliff and Columbus streets, surrounded by bricks inscribed with the names of residents who contributed to the tower's preservation. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

Cambridge's old water tower also dates to the 19th century, according to village resident and historian Eileen Scott. It is still standing behind the Presbyterian church. She remembers sitting on the steps as a child in the late 1920s or early 1930s while her grandfather, then the village constable, performed one of his constabulary duties.

"He did the pumping every day," she remembers, "so the water tower was filled with water." Scott collects vintage postcards bearing photos of the tower.

Take them to the tower

Rieder has worked for Verona for 26 years, the last 24 as director of public works. During that time, he has learned that "people really don't have any idea where their water comes from or where their wastewater goes. All they care about is when they come home and turn that faucet on, that they've got water there."

Once or twice a year, he says, he'll take a group of elementary school students on a tour of Verona's water facilities. "We generally start a well up for them, take them to a water tower, and their eyes are as big as this room. They can't believe that's where their water comes from."

In communities with water towers, it comes from above.

A towering figure in Waunakee

Randy Dorn was still in high school the first time he climbed one of Waunakee's water towers. "We jumped the fence and spray-painted the year we graduated on it," he says, shaking his head at the inadvisability of this stunt. In September, Dorn will mark 20 years as manager of Waunakee's water and sewer utility. You get the sense that if he was to catch his younger self in the act, he might come down on the perpetrator like, well, 300,000 gallons of water.

Chicago Bridge & Iron built Waunakee's first water tower in 1928, with a capacity of 50,000 gallons. A 200,000-gallon water tower was added in 1969, followed by a 300,000-gallon tower in 1992 and a 500,000-gallon one in 2001.

Waunakee's sprouting towers are an emblem of its growth, says Dorn, who grew up on the village's northwest fringes. Three of Waunakee's towers sport an aluminum exterior finish. Two bear the community's name. The fourth tower is coated with a white base and decorated with a painting of prairie grass.

Nobody has ever approached Waunakee about the possibility of advertising on one of its water towers, Dorn says, "and if somebody ever did ask us, I don't think our community would allow it."

Dorn perceives latent interest in Waunakee's water towers among residents, "because people who know me ask a lot of questions about them." What sorts of questions? "How tall are they?" (Two of them stand 153 feet high, one is 133 feet and one is 123 feet.)

He also dispels misconceptions. "A couple times," he says, "I've opened up the base door and let them look inside, and they're like, well, isn't the water going to come out? No, because the water's up there, not down here. They want to know what it's like to climb inside it. I tell them stories about when I started here, I climbed them all and I've stood on top of them, and they're like, 'No way.' And I'm like, 'It's not that bad.'" Dorn now delegates much of the climbing to contractors.

Other questions come via his wife, a teacher. "She's had a couple kids ask her how they work and what their purpose is," Dorn says.

Do they ever freeze in the dead of winter? "The top two feet might freeze," he allows. And while he's heard of the occasional water tower in another community freezing solid, this can usually be averted by adjusting the point at which the wells are triggered to replenish the supply, cycling warmer water into the tanks at greater frequency.

Like others who hold similar positions, Dorn knows who and what depends on his water towers: Everyone and everything. When the water is flowing, there is no flood of public gratitude or congratulations. But "as soon as they don't have water," Dorn says, "they're on the phone." - D.M.

Dorn says the village's sprouting towers are an emblem of its growth.

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