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Brown mushroom water tower is cloudy but seen for miles


By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

EL CAJON, California –Denny Whitson lives across the street from the large mushroom shaped water tank with clouds around its rim. He likes it very much, noting that he can look up from 20 miles away and know exactly where his home is. Other people aren’t quite so enamored of the landmark.

“They think it’s ugly,” Whitson acknowledged. “But I’m fine with that. People will find things to be upset about, and if wasn’t this tower it would be something else. It gives them a focus in life.”

The 130-foot-high water tower at the top of Katherine Street in the Fletcher Hills neighborhood of El Cajon is comprised of two separate storage compartments serving different water districts. The 100-foot-diameter compartment with its metal clouds serves the 50-square-mile Helix Water District, which includes La Mesa, El Cajon, Lemon Grove, the community of Spring Valley, and various unincorporated areas of San Diego County.

The 70-foot-diameter stem is utilized by the 85-square-mile Padre Dam Municipal Water District, which supplies to El Cajon, Santee Lakeside, Flinn Springs, Harbison Canyon, Blossom Valley, Alpine, Dehesa and Crest.

The $7.3 million contract to construct the combination tank was awarded by the two districts in 1995 to Pitt-Des Moines, Inc., a company based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That company used Cor-Ten steel, which starts off blue-gray in color but turns to a reddish brown color with weathering. Although it may look like rust, the reddish brown coloring actually protects against rust and saves many thousands of dollars on maintenance costs, according to officials of the two water districts.

The 12- by-20-foot metal clouds were created by students from nearby Grossmont College and affixed to the upper tank as part of the original project. Their art teacher, Jim Wilstermann, said that the clouds are intended “to reflect the natural water cycle and ever-changing sky over the Cuyamaca Mountains” which are visible from the tank site.

The combined water tower replaced two separate tanks that had to be removed from the site to make room for State Route 125 which lies below and to the west of the Katherine Street promontory. For the same reason, some nearby homes had to be removed as well, leaving an emptied cul-de-sac for Whitson, owner of a home repair company, to enjoy.

The combined water tank “is an excellent neighbor,” Whitson enthuses. “It’s quiet and they take good care of it. They check it four or five times a day at least, adding to the security around here. They put in landscaping and they keep it up.”

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  This article was published previously on

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