116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Hiawatha, Cedar Rapids, North Liberty, Coralville, Tiffin and Solon all have water towers that — in addition to storing drinking water for daily use — also serve as local landmarks.
But not Iowa City.
“You see elevated tanks everywhere and the only ones you see in Iowa City are owned by the university,” said Ed Brinton, 80, of Iowa City, who served as Iowa City’s water superintendent from 1986 to 1994.
The reason Iowa City, with 74,000 residents, doesn’t have a water tower goes back to the early 1970s when the city was upgrading an outdated water treatment system, Brinton said.
Water towers are the most recognizable water storage option. An elevated tank, sometimes put on a hill, uses gravity to create pressure that serves as an indirect pumping system to distribute water over a wide distance.
But they have drawbacks.
“They decided elevated water tanks were too expensive to maintain,” Brinton said of Iowa City’s leaders in 1972. “Every five years you had to drain them down, clean them out and repaint. You have to patch them and do repairs. That was true in the 1960s and 1970s and it’s still true today.”
In extremely cold weather, water operations managers also have to keep the water flowing to ensure it doesn’t freeze in the towers.
In the past, water towers with ladders accessible up one of four feet were tempting targets for climbers, Brinton said. But newer water towers are built with a pedestal that includes internal ladders or stairs.
Instead, Cleo Kron, the city’s water superintendent in the early 1970s, and engineering consultants proposed Iowa City build ground storage reservoirs — 2 million-gallon tanks built at least partially underground, Brinton said.
The new system, approved by City Council and installed by 1973, was fully-automated and computer controlled — one of the first such systems in the United States, said Craig Meacham, assistant water superintendent.
“The results of the installation of the digital control system at the Iowa City water-treatment plant are excellent,” Alan Manning, a Twin Cities engineering consultant wrote in an 1977 article in the Journal of the American Water Works Association. “The system has reduced the chemical feed cost substantially; the system has offered better distribution control.
“Although a threefold expansion of plant capacity and devices was made, no increase in the labor force was necessary. One operator per shift is adequate to maintain the three plants.”
Today, most municipal water systems are fully automated.
But the pressurized system Iowa City installed in the early 1970s that uses pumps to move water rather than gravity from a tower still is unusual, Meacham said.
“Most towns in Iowa use water towers,” he said.
Iowa City has four ground storage reservoirs positioned around the city. Pumps send water from the water treatment plant to fill the tanks throughout the day and night to prepare for the afternoon and evening hours when water demands are highest, Meacham said.
The reservoirs have emergency generators to keep the pumps going if there’s a power outage. A citywide outage might cause the flow to stop for a couple of minutes, but generators would get it moving shortly, he said.
“It’s very robust,” he said.
As the city grows, water operators try to maintain strong water pressure to all neighborhoods. Iowa City is in the process of installing a new pressure zone to improve pressure for development on the northeast side, Meacham said.
Iowa City also has land that could be used in the future for water towers, he said.
“Going forward, we’ll see what the engineers decide,” he said. “We have space for elevated storage if we need it.”
In many Iowa communities, the water tower serves as a guidepost and an opportunity for branding.
Adair, a town of 750 that straddles the Adair-Guthrie county line, is known for its yellow smiley face. And Stanton, population 629, loved its coffee pot water tower so much that even after it no longer could be used to hold water, residents in 2014 installed it as public art just a few feet off the ground, according to the Des Moines Register.
In 2019, Muscatine won an Iowa Finance Authority contest to get a custom water tower wrap. Muscatine native and artist Laura Palmer designed a collage showing images that relate to the city, including a melon and an old river paddleboat, the Muscatine Journal reported.
So does Iowa City think it’s missing out by not having its own water tower?
“We have a lot of other landmarks,” Brinton said. “I think people know where Iowa City is and what it is.”
If you want to see a water tower in Iowa City, just go look at the Tigerhawk-branded University of Iowa water tower by Kinnick Stadium.
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