Investigative summary

It’s a sight that would be shocking to anyone. Red water has streamed from faucets in a Central Texas community for years. Families in Rockdale who pay for clean, clear water are fed up, and now the city has been hit with new water quality violations from the state. KXAN traveled to Rockdale — about an hour outside of Austin — to get answers from city leaders on what they’re doing to fix the problem once and for all. The plan isn’t cheap and, if approved, customers will have to pay for it even more.

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The water runs red in Rockdale

Two large mason jars filled with water sit side-by-side on a kitchen counter. The liquid inside looks clear, until Deta Donnelly picks one up and swirls it around. 

“That’s disgusting isn’t it? You want a drink?” she says with a chuckle, as you lean closer to see filmy particles emerge, like floating mucus. Smaller, dirt-like particles waft in the background.

Water from Deta Donnelly’s tap sits in mason jars on her counter (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“This was on a good day,” Donnelly said. 

She opens the dishwasher, pulls out the rack and points to rusty, bare looking spots where the coating has been eaten away at the base of the plastic prongs.

“It ruins everything we have,” she said. “It ruins your toilets, it ruins your clothes, it ruins all of your fixtures.”

Donnelly is referring to the red-tinted water she says often flows out of her faucet. She grabs her phone and starts scrolling through pictures. Several show her white porcelain bathtub full of water that looks like it’s been mixed with food coloring. In other pictures, she’s holding cups that look like they’re filled with tea.

“I’m not drinking that crap,” Donnelly said. “Every city manager since 19 — my guess would be 1980 is at fault for this.”

Deta Donnelly stocks up on bottled water to drink during the week, since the water from her tap in Rockdale often comes out red (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Three cases of bottled water are stacked in her kitchen next to her oven. It won’t be long until the supply of drinking water disappears, and she’ll head  to the store to grab another four or five cases for theweek.

Donnelly pays her city water bill every month but says she only uses the running water for dishes and laundry. She’s gotten rid of everything white in her wardrobe because it gets stained by the red water. And on the “red water days,” she has no choice but to go without a bath.

“There are days my daughter cannot even bathe her babies,” Donnelly said. “That is ridiculous.”

And that’s just the way it’s been since she and her family moved to Rockdale in 1995. For years, she’s been showing up to city council meetings and fighting city leaders, but the red water still flows.

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Red water fills a bathtub in Rockdale in 2017 (Courtesy Danielle Donnelly-Kerlin)

New water quality violations, but still safe to drink

In October, the small town of Rockdale, located about an hour northeast of Austin, was hit with three new violations after the state agency in charge of enforcing environmental standards tested the city’s drinking water. The testing was brought on by a complaint claiming the water was discolored and had a bad smell.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality concluded that Rockdale’s water was too corrosive and contains too much iron and manganese.

Rockdale City Manager Chris Whitaker works at his desk, where he’s displayed a collection of corroded pipes (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

The news was no surprise to City Manager Chris Whittaker and Public Works Director Jason Hubbell.

“This is a service pipe, you can see all of the corrosion in here,” Whittaker said, pointing to an old, rusty pipe so caked with layers of corroded material it’s opening is about half the size it once was.

He keeps on display in his office at city hall.

He says there’s 26 miles of similar looking underground pipes that run through the city carrying water to homes, schools and businesses.

“Until we get rid of all those pipes, we’re never going to fix the issue,” Whittaker said.

Whittaker and Hubbell say water that’s been properly treated at the water treatment plant is hitting those old pipes, and carrying the corrosion with it, turning clean water at the source into various shades of red when it spills out of the tap.

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Even when the color and smell is off, Hubbell says the water is still safe to drink.

TCEQ agrees. It determined even with the latest violations, people can still safely drink the water, but corrosive water can become a health concern in homes with metal plumbing. That water can cause copper and lead to leach from pipes and fixtures. TCEQ says the city’s latest testing in September came back fine.

Still, TCEQ told Rockdale it had until Nov. 30 to get the iron, manganese and corrosivity levels of its water down. The city asked the agency for a 45-day extension so it can purchase tanks that will let them add more caustic to the water. Hubbell is hopeful it will get the levels where they need to be.

Rockdale on TCEQ’s radar for a while

The city of Rockdale received a number of violations from TCEQ over the last five years. In January 2013, after someone complained about the water looking like chocolate, the city was cited for not flushing dead-end lines. Four months later, the city was cited again for not installing the right type of backflow prevention.

In May of last year, Rockdale received two violations: the water was too corrosive and TCEQ said the city was not keeping a record of chemicals used each day.

A solution could take years

For a long-term fix, the city has mapped out a 7-year plan using grants and loans that have not yet been approved to build a new water treatment plant and replace the pipes. The grand total for the project is $48 million.

Rockdale applied for help from the Texas Water Development Board, but TWDB tells KXAN the money, which would come from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, has not yet been approved by their board.

Whittaker mapped out a timeline for the city council which shows work could start in the summer of 2019 and be complete by the end of 2025.

Even with help from the state, Whittaker says water customers can count on several rate hikes to help cover the cost. The city council is expected to vote on the first rate hike at their Jan. 14 meeting.

“We can keep putting band-aids on things, but then we’ll keep getting fined,” he said.

Donnelly, though, is not convinced. She’s heard the city’s grand plans before, but it was all talk and no action. She and her husband plan to put 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 bought property that will eventually have its own well so they can leave Rockdale and its red water behind.