ROCKDALE, Texas (KXAN) — It’s what Danielle Donnelly-Kerlin calls a “good day”:
“The water doesn’t smell as strong as normal and it’s clear,” she said.
Donnelly-Kerlin has lived in Rockdale since she was a freshman in high school and can’t remember a time there wasn’t red water — what she calls “the bad days.”
“It’s everywhere. I mean, you turn on the water faucet in the kitchen and it looks like coffee,” she said.
About once a month — Donnelly-Kerlin never knows when — her shower or sink spews putrid red water. Bottled water has become a household staple.
“The number one thing that a city offers that is absolutely dire for survival is water and we can’t use it,” she said.
Rockdale City Manager Chris Whittaker says most of the pipes, especially on the east side of town, are original 1902 cast iron.
“It’s a combination of the rusting pipe, it’s the high iron and magnesium in the water and it’s dead-end pipes. So when all that stuff is in the pipes, it all gets pushed to the dead end. Well when you flush it or have a water main break, then it stirs it up until it gets flushed out,” Whittaker said.
Rockdale’s aging water infrastructure is also traced back to a 70-year-old water treatment plant and a cracking clay sewer line.
“We have been doing improvements over the years,” Whittaker said. “It’s been slow and incremental, we got rid of some of the cast iron pipe and put in the new 900 series PVC pipe. We’ve got community development block grants from the state and federal government.”
Those grants are only about $300,000, only enough to fix one city block of pipe, Whittaker says. “We’re just kind of chunking at it one at a time,” he added.
In order to replace and upgrade all 28 miles of pipe and fix other crucial improvements related to the water, Whittaker’s new proposal would cost roughly $44 million.
“At the end of the day, it’s not just going to happen just because we say, ‘Alright let’s go fix this.’ Its, are we going to raise the water rate or the sewer rate? I have several options for city council to look at,” Whittaker said. “The residents expect it to get fixed.”
It’s more money that may be passed on to the taxpayers like Donnelly-Kerlin. “We pay a rate of $0.91 per hundred dollars. That is our tax rate that is insane in this town. Don’t talk about raising rates when you already have rates through the roof,” she said.
As for safety of the red water, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) says the water is in compliance.
However, Donnelly-Kerlin found reports from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that say otherwise. “Three contaminants that are cancer causing agents have tested positive repeatedly for that in Rockdale water,” she said.
The three are traces of dibromochloromethane, radiological contaminants and total trihalomethanes.
“I just want my kids to be able to take a bath,” Donnelly-Kerlin said.
Whittaker has put together an extensive proposal on updating the pipes and infrastructure which he will present to city councilors next week. Council members may end up only approving part of the entire plan. Whatever is approved will then have to be sent to the Texas Water Development Board and Rockdale will have to find a way to pay for it.
“It’s a multi-year project. You have to hire the engineers and have them figure out what their own timeline is,” Whittaker said.
After years of dealing with the “bad red water days,” Donnelly-Kerlin is skeptical anything will change. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”