Why have water towers?

Photo by Greg Lehman.


Walla Walla is said to be Nez Percé for “Place of Many Waters,” but since I don’t speak Nez Percé I can’t say for certain if that is an accurate translation.

But what I do know for certain is Walla Walla is the place of tasty water.

I was thinking about our clear, pure water from the Blue Mountains the other day when I saw water towers are perched high above some of the cities — Sunnyside, Grandview and Prosser — driving on Interstate 82 on my way home. The taste of the water in those cities? Not so good.

Water towers seem kind of old fashioned, and the city of Walla Walla doesn’t have any of those classic tanks perched on four legs that just scream Americana. Are they even used today for anything other than being a great place to paint the name of the city and/or its high school mascot?

Is Walla Walla’s water better because it isn’t stored in a high in the air in a water tower?

As I came into town on the four-lane stretch of U.S. Highway 12 I looked toward the Washington State Penitentiary, the sight of a classic water towers reminded me there are some in the Valley. College Place has one, as does the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs — take a breath — Medical Center.

What’s up with that?

Why are there water towers seemingly every where but the city of Walla Walla? The water in College Place and at the VA hospital tastes good, about the same as Walla Walla, and I haven’t heard of any complaints from the prison (and inmates there have been known to complain on occasion).

Turns out, the penitentiary gets its water from the city. Shari Hall, spokeswoman for the Washington State Penitentiary, said the water tower is no longer used for drinking water.

Hmmm, so maybe it the towers are the difference.

I went to the water source for Walla Walla (pun intended), Frank Nicholson, the city of Walla Walla’s utility engineer for water, sewer and landfill.

College Place has its own water system using wells (so it’s pretty much the same water, only underground). The deal is pretty much the same on the VA grounds. It went off the city water system in 1926 and has been served by wells since.

The short answer is that water towers have zip, nada, nothing to do with the taste of water.

Then what’s with the water towers?

Nicholson said the College Place water tower, like all water towers, is used to set the pressure for the water system. Clean water is pumped up into the tower and then out. For each 2.31 feet the water travels down, a pound of pressure per square inch is added for the system, he said.

Most city water systems run on between 50 to 100 PSI, which keeps things moving enough to have the water pressure at 20 to 30 pounds so it will flow when you turn on the faucet at home.

OK, then why doesn’t Walla Walla need a big tank on sticks to pressure its water system?

Simple, Nicholson said, Walla Walla doesn’t need a water tower because its three water storage tanks, two of which are already set 300 feet above Walla Walla. The twin tanks that hold 7 million gallons each are at the water treatment plant. One of the tanks, which has welcoming painting on its side, is easily visible from Highway 12 coming from the east into town. It’s on the left across the highway from the airport. The other tank is tougher to see because it is partially hidden by the first tank.

Those tanks are 1,300 feet above sea level. Heading into the center of Walla Walla, where Whitman College is located, is 1,000 feet above sea level.

That’s plenty of distance to pick up the right amount of water pressure needed, Nicholson said.

The third tank, which holds 10 million gallons, sits on high ground off Clinton Street where it intersects with Highway 12.

Nicholson said Walla Walla has three tanks that total 24 million gallons because that is a one-day supply of water at its peak usage. Think of a day in August when its 101 degrees and folks are all watering their lawns.

The 24 gallons requirement for Walla Walla ensures city residents will have at least one day of water in case of a disaster where the electrical system was out. In addition, the multi-million-gallon tanks could be used as a water source to fight a gigantic fire. The water towers at the prison, College Place and the VA can be used for the same purpose.

So, water towers are not old fashioned after all, and having water flowing through a tank sitting on a tower or in the foothills of a mountain has nothing to do with taste.

The taste of water has everything to do with its source and the amount of chemicals used to purify it.

Walla Walla has the perfect combination of a fantastic water source and only enough chemicals to meet the federal requirement. The water is treated with ozone and a minuscule amount of chlorine (less than one part per million) to kill the bacteria.

I’ll drink to that. A tall glass of Walla Walla water, of course.

Rick Eskil can be reached at rickeskil@wwub.com or 509-526-8309. If you, too, wonder what’s up with that, let Eskil know about it and maybe he can find out.


Chas 2 years, 1 month ago

I enjoyed this very much. Infrastructure, workers unseen, we take for granted. More like this, please.


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