Saturday, April 07, 2001

Water towers loom large

Loathed as eyesores and loved as landmarks

By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In most residential areas, elevated water towers look as out of place as an adult sitting at a first-grader's desk. No amount of landscaping can hide them or make them fit in with the neighborhood.

        That's the rub in Warren County, where residents and officials of Deerfield Township are waging a bitter, and so far unsuccessful, battle to stop Mason from building one near their homes.

        The people who build and maintain those towers — there are more than 100 dotting the Tristate's skyline — say they are an essential part of the infrastructure. They help satisfy high water demand in the summer, during fires and when electric pumps fail.

[photo] The 46-year-old rusty water tower in Clermont County's Union Township won't be painted because it's slated to be torn down within two years, officials say.
(Mike Simons photo)
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        And as more people move into the area, the need for towers will rise, too — and so will the strong emotions they often stir.

        Bill Reeves thinks the towers get a bad rap.

        “I think they're pretty good neighbors,” said Mr. Reeves, who retired last week as water supply superintendent at Cincinnati Water Works. “They don't throw wild parties and they have no barking dogs.”

"Not in my backyard'
        Water towers spark a wide range of reactions from communities — from outrage to reverence.

        In Deerfield Township, Mason's plans for a 175-foot water tower have alarmed residents, who fear their property values will plummet. About two dozen opponents demonstrated last week in front of Mason City Hall, and a lawsuit has been filed against the city.

        “It's going to be so close to our neighborhood,” said John Neimeyer, who lives in the Hampton Village subdivision, which will not be served by the tower. “It won't fit with what's already in the area. Nothing else is taller than 25 feet.”

[photo] With its folksy phrase, Florence has drawn national publicity
(File photo)
[photo] Oxford ignited an uproar by tearing down its historic tower.
(File photo)
[photo] Mount Washington's tower is a source of neighborhood pride.
(File photo)
        Last week, a Warren County judge refused to grant the township and residents a restraining order to halt tower construction.

        Sometimes, maintenance is an issue. In Clermont County's Union Township, people grumble over the unsightly appearance of the water tower at Glen Este-Withamsville and Clough roads. The light blue structure's supports are covered with rusty blotches.

        “They could keep it painted better,” said Lee Carty, who lives near the tower on Clough. “They charge enough for the water that they could keep it looking better than it does.”

        Tom Yeager, operations administrator for the Clermont County Sewer and Water Department. said the tower is scheduled for demolition within two years. The old 100,000-gallon tower, built in 1955, will be replaced with one that holds 2 million gallons.

        “We don't want to paint it and have a nice, fresh coat of paint on it when we tear it down,” Mr. Yeager said.

Some are treasures
        By contrast, other communities have embraced water towers as treasured landmarks.

        Mount Washington's tower on Beechmont Avenue is the neighborhood's foremost symbol and a source of community pride.

        Each Christmas season, the Moeller Knights of Columbus place hundreds of lights on the tower to make it look like a candle.

    An elevated water tower operates by gravity and must be at or near the highest point of the area it serves.
    When consumers use less water than the system is pumping, the excess water goes into the water tower through an intake pipe. When they use more water than is being pumped, the water starts flowing out of the tower through a different pipe.
    A valve in the water tower monitors the level of water in the tower to prevent an overflow.
    Water districts also store water in underground tanks and other types of facilities.
    Of the 160 million gallons of water stored by the Cincinnati Water Works, 30 million is in elevated water towers.
    “If we put all that water in elevated towers, we'd have towers all over hell's half-acre,” said Bill Reeves, who retired Friday as water supply superintendent at the Cincinnati Water Works.
        “When we tell people where our store is, we say, "We're two doors down from the tower,'” said Dave Sohngen, owner of a lock-and-safe store on Beechmont Avenue and a lifelong neighborhood resident. “Everybody knows where the tower is.”

        Perhaps the most famous water tower in the region is the one painted with “FLORENCE Y'ALL” in Northern Kentucky.

        Florence built the water tower near Interstate 75 in 1974 in anticipation of the construction of the Florence Mall at that location.

        The city had “FLORENCE MALL” painted on it. But the state said that violated state law by advertising something that didn't exist along an interstate, and ordered the city to change it immediately.

        Then-Florence Mayor C.M. Hop Ewing suggested “Florence Y'all,” a less costly alternative to painting over the whole name. The painters converted the “M” to a “Y” and added the apostrophe.

        The folksy phrase captured the media's fancy, and the water tower received national publicity.

        “I said y'all my whole life. I didn't say you or youse,” said Mr. Ewing, who still lives in Florence. "Y'all come' was one of my favorite expressions.”

        His daughter, Diane Whalen, is Florence's current mayor. She said there are no plans to paint over the landmark's famous phrase.

        “Some people say it's hokey or stereotypical of the South,” she said. “But if we tried to paint over it, I think there would be far more against doing it than for it.”

        Such sentiment ignited a huge fuss in Oxford in 1998. The historic water tower in the town's business district was torn down after many angry debates. Some viewed it as an eyesore, while others felt it should be preserved for historic and sentimental reasons.

        The atmosphere grew so ugly that someone threw eggs on the houses and cars of Oxford council members who voted to demolish the tower.

Practical value

        Whether revered or reviled, water towers provide crucial services to local neighborhoods.

        The towers, usually 140 to 180 feet high, generally store between 500,000 and 2 million gallons.

        The towers store water that can be used when the system can't pump enough water to satisfy consumers' demands.

        They're critical during fires, when firefighters need a high volume of water in a short period of time. They also come to the rescue on hot summer days at peak water-use times.

        And when electric water pumps don't work, the water towers fill the need.

        Because they operate by gravity, water towers must be on high ground. They also must be near the densely populated areas they're serving.

        Most water companies try to soften the towers' visual effect by landscaping the area around them.

        “When people look out the windows of their home, they usually look straight across the landscape, not up in the sky,” said Dave Rager, director of Cincinnati Water Works. “If you have good-sized pine trees around it, they won't see the tower when they look out the window.”

        Many water companies paint the towers an aqua blue so that they blend in with the sky. As a general rule, they clean the towers every five years and repaint them every 10 years.

        “It would be nice if you could tuck the water towers down in some big valley where nobody would see them,” Mr. Reeves said. “But they just wouldn't work.”

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- Water towers loom large
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