We cannot live without it. 

California settlers of old traveled miles for it.


The life-giving liquid that is so readily available now, was not always so. 

In the state’s early settlement years, water was largely an uncontrolled element. Streams ran uncontrolled, and wetlands overtook masses of land during wet seasons, according to the California Department of Water Resources

This changed when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, attracting thousands to immigrate to California globally the following year. These immigrants, dubbed the “Forty-niners,” created some of California’s earliest water infrastructure during the Gold Rush. 

As towns continued to grow into larger metropolitan cities with booming populations, more water infrastructure was needed, such as water towers. 

Editor’s note: This is an occasional series where Voice of OC works with local community photographers to offer residents a first-hand look at the local sites and scenes of Orange County.

Today, water towers stand as monuments to California’s rich history, and reminders of our continually advancing world.

Although Orange County’s water towers are now labeled as historical landmarks online, some still serve as essential infrastructure. 

Santa Ana’s historic water tower still supplies over 800,000 gallons of water to residents. 

The tower was built in 1928, almost 60 years after William Spurgeon established the town of Santa Ana through the purchase of land from a Spanish land grant, according to Public Affairs Information Officer Paul Eakins. 

The Santa Ana Water Tower from E Washington Ave. on March 20, 2023. The water tower was originally designed to hold 1 million gallons of water. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Standinding 153 feet tall, the tower is one of the most recognized, and tallest, historical landmarks in Orange County. 

It stands on the corner of Poinsettia Avenue and 14th Street, and can be viewed in passing from the I-5 freeway. 

The Santa Ana water tower on March 20, 2023. The water tower was originally designed to hold 1 million gallons of water and is located on French Street. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC

Fullerton’s “H2O Tower” sits at the end of a trailhead

Tucked within a private housing tract known as Hawks Pointe, the hillside Muir Trail leads to a large water tank. 

Before Hawks Pointe and Muir Trail graced the hills of Fullerton, the city was a passthrough town for the Santa Fe railroad. Founded in 1887, the city quickly became a center for agricultural developments as well as oil mining, after oil was discovered in the 1890s.

Views of the city of Fullerton from the Muir Trail on April 17, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC

Atop the hills, wide views of the city of Fullerton and neighborhoods can be seen.

The “Surge Tower” of the Laguna Woods community is also flanked by 360 degree hilltop views, but technically, it’s not a water tower. 

A view of the Surge Tower from Via Vista in Laguna Woods Village on April 24, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Surge Tower is a portable water pipeline responsible for releasing pressure caused by the flow of water.  Without it, nearby pipelines could rupture and result in major underground repairs, according to the Laguna Woods History Center.  

Although the tower is located in Laguna Woods, it does not supply water to the surrounding areas, since the community’s water is supplied by the El Toro Water District. 

Laguna Woods was established in 1964 as a senior community similar to Leisure World in Seal Beach. The community was incorporated as Orange County’s 32nd city in 1999.

Placentia’s water tower currently proclaims the city as an “All America City,” but it did not always do so. 

A photograph of the Placentia water tower taken in the 1950s. The photo originated from Pound Photographs, a long-time photo studio in downtown Placentia. COURTESY OF: RAY POUND, Pound Photographs, and JOHN WALCEK, Photography by John Walcek
The Placentia Water Tower located on W Chapman Ave. on April 12, 2023. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Prior to the 1970s, the tower stated “The People Are The City” in bold letters across its rounded side. After the city of Placentia achieved the All-America City Award in 1976, which recognizes exemplary cities in civic engagement, it was repainted to reflect their newfound status.

Placentia achieved “town” status in 1910, when the Santa Fe railroad decided to lay some track through the area. Many of the original residents of the area were growers, or farmers, according to Wendy Elliot, PhD, Vice Chair of the Placentia Historical Committee and Emerita of CSUF History Department.

Fast forward 25 years, the current iteration of the water tower was constructed, supplying water to about 500 Placentia residents at the time.

The tower stands 110 feet tall, and was designed to supply 50,000 gallons of water to the community below it. The tower is no longer used for water storage, according to John Walcek, Placentia Historical Committee Member and board member of Placentia Founders Society.

Towards the coast, another water tower sits nestled among the tall, skinny homes on Surfside Beach.

This particular tower looks a bit different from the towers in Santa Ana, Laguna Woods and Placentia. 

It has been converted into a home. 

The “Water Tower House” of Surfside, California, on April 13, 2023. The house is located at 1 Anderson St., and is available as a vacation rental. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.

Standing 87 feet tall over Pacific Coast Highway, the water tower was built in the 1890s to service steam engines traveling up the coast, according to the Los Angeles Times. Seal Beach would not become an incorporated city until 1915, consisting of tent-housing until general stores were established in the early 1900s. Surfside Colony, where the tower is located, was not established officially until 1929.

The tower was saved from destruction in the 1980s by Long Beach City College math professor George Armstrong, who moved to remodel it into a home in response to a community-wide “save our water tower” movement. 

A view of the Surfside “Water Tower House” on April 13, 2023. The tower was originally built in the 1890s, but was converted into a home in the 1980s. Credit: ERIKA TAYLOR, Voice of OC.


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