Woodbury, Minn. - Drivers are gawking at the biggest distraction on Interstate 94 - a Woodbury water tower being painted at a cost of $1 million.

The 185-foot water tower looms over the interstate west of Woodbury Drive. The paint job will be the first in the tower’s 20-year history, said Woodbury city engineer Klay Eckles.

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The cost may seem sky-high to some people, said Bob Kollmer, owner of Kollmer Associates, which consulted for the city of Woodbury for the painting contract. But that’s only because they don’t know what it takes to finish the job, he said.

"They call it painting, but it is really rehabilitating," said Eckles. The painting process includes stripping away years of corrosion and rust. He said the city must protect its $6 million investment in the water tower.

Painting steel is complicated, said Kollmer. If there is any sign of rust, he said, the steel must be sand-blasted down to what he calls "the white metal."

When workers sand-blast the exterior surface, an immense curtain is raised around the tower to control dust. To passing commuters, it looks like the tower is putting on pajamas -- a massive striped curtain that goes up and down.

That dust-containment system alone costs about $100,000, said Kollmer, including the rooftop outriggers that lift up the curtain.

The painting is done in phases -- the inside and outside of the tower, then inside and outside of the 2-million-gallon water tank inside.

The steel requires a zinc-based primer and two coats of epoxy paint. Site foreman Raul Molina said the paint costs roughly $110 a gallon -- or $150,000 to paint surfaces almost twice as big as a football field. On other water towers, the paint can run as much as $400 a gallon for the final-coat, high-gloss urethane.

The work is easily derailed by the weather, especially winds. Last weekend’s storm whipped up the curtains and knocked down a chain-link fence, setting the project back.

Next week, commuters will see the tower covered in blotches as the priming begins. "It’s going to look patchy, like a checkerboard," said Kenton Ramgren, site supervisor for Kollmer.

The exterior will be painted a color called Cumulus, a light-blue off-white color. The work will continue for two more months, said Ramgren.

Consultant Kollmer said communities usually pay the high cost of maintenance willingly, because water towers are the most visible form of identification for suburbs that often struggle to distinguish themselves.

"It’s community pride, having your name and logo up there," said Kollmer.