The city of Rockdale, Texas has had a “red scare” going on for years. But this one has nothing to do with politics, the Cold War, or anything like that. Rockdale’s red scare is all about water.
According to an investigative report by KXAN-TV, Austin, red water has streamed from faucets in that Central Texas community for years, and the people who live there are fed up with paying for water they won’t drink, although authorities contend that it’s safe. And so, apparently, is the state of Texas, which has hit the city with new water-quality violations.
One woman interviewed for the story, Deta Donnelly, said that the red water eats away at the plastic coating on the innards of her dishwasher and corrodes other appliances and fixtures. “It ruins everything we have,” she told KXAN. “It ruins your toilets, it ruins your clothes, it ruins all of your fixtures.”
She’s gotten rid of everything white in her wardrobe because it gets stained by the red water. On “red water days,” she goes without a bath. She refuses to drink the tap water, and stocks up on bottled water to drink during the week, an expense she incurs on top of paying her water bill every month.
This has been going on since she and her family moved to Rockdale in 1995. She’s complained about it at city council meetings and fought city leaders about the problem, but the red stuff still flows.
In October, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality tested the city’s water after receiving a complaint that the water was discolored and had a bad smell. It concluded that Rockdale's water was too corrosive and contains too much iron and manganese and issued three new violations.
This news was apparently not a surprise to City Manager Chris Whitaker and Public Works Director Jason Hubbell. “This is a service pipe, you can see all of the corrosion in here,” Whitaker told the reporter, pointing to a rusty pipe so choked with corrosion that its opening is about half the size it once was. He keeps this pipe on display in his office at city hall.
He says there’s 26 miles of similar-looking underground pipes carrying water to homes, schools and businesses. “Until we get rid of all those pipes, we're never going to fix the issue,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker and Hubbell say that once the cleaned water from the treatment plant hits those old pipes, it carries the corrosion with it. That’s what turns it red. One can only imagine it’s effect on sprinkler systems and irrigation pipes.
Yet Hubbell contends that the water is still safe to drink, and the TCEQ agrees. However, the commission did say that the corrosive tap water can become a health concern in homes with metal plumbing, as it can cause copper and lead to leach from pipes and fixtures.
Even so, TCEQ told Rockdale it had until November 30 to get the iron, manganese and corrosivity levels of its water down. The city asked the agency for a 45-day extension.
The city has received a number of violations from TCEQ over the last five years. In January 2013, the city was cited for not flushing dead-end lines after someone complained about the water looking like chocolate. Four months later, the city was again cited, this time, for not installing the right type of backflow prevention.
In May of last year, Rockdale received two violations, one for corrosive water and the other for not keeping a record of the chemicals used each day.
It looks as if the residents of Rockdale face several more years of red water. The city has mapped out a 7-year, $48 million plan using grants and loans that have not yet been approved to build a new water treatment plant and replace the pipes. The work could start in the summer of 2019 and hopefully, be completed by the end of 2025. Whitaker says water customers can count on several rate hikes to help cover the cost.
Donnelly is not impressed, having heard about grand plans before. She and her husband will be putting their house on the market after the first of the year. “I'm throwing in the towel,” Donnelly said. “I've had enough.” They’ve already purchased property that will eventually have its own well.