Rockdale getting $27.4 million to fix red water woes

Investigations

ROCKDALE, Texas (KXAN) — Thursday was a crucial day for the city of Rockdale. City Manager Chris Whittaker jumped in the car, drove to Austin and was in the room when the Texas Water Development Board approved $27.4 million in financial assistance for the city’s drinking water and wastewater system.

_Red water_ found in Rockdale tap water. (Courtesy_Danielle Donnelly-Kerlin)_576449
Red water in Rockdale

“I was pleasantly stunned, and just sitting there like, wow, it’s real and now we’re gonna get the money,” said Whittaker.

He and other city leaders have been taking heat from citizens for years who never know what day they’re going to get smelly red water flowing out of their faucets. Locals said they can’t even wash a load of white clothes, unless they want them to turn brown. And when it comes to drinking the water, people tell KXAN they don’t. They just live off bottled water.

Water customers would often notify the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which prompted multiple investigations from the state and resulted in a long list of violations and fines.

The response from Whittaker was the same every time: we’re aware of the issues and are trying to come up with a permanent plan to replace the outdated cast iron pipes causing the problem, and a way to pay for it.

rockdale corroded pipes_1544897360742.jpg.jpg
Old cast iron pipes in Rockdale. (KXAN photo:Erin Cargile)

A KXAN investigation in December of 2018 highlighted the issues, and the city’s aspirations and timeline to work toward a solution.

Rockdale’s long-term plan hinged on the $27,440,000 in financial assistance the TWDB approved Thursday.

The grand total includes a $15,715,000 loan and a $500,000 grant from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, and a $10,825,000 loan and a $400,000 grant from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

The city must use the money for planning, acquisition, design and construction costs associated with water and wastewater system improvements.

Brett Boren, owner of Brett’s Backyard BBQ in Rockdale says he’s happy the city now has the money to fix the red water (KXAN/Richie Bowes)

Last year, the city started taking steps to repay the TWDB loans that had not even been approved yet, by approving a water customer rate hike. It took effect last March. More rate increases are planned for the coming months and years.

Currently, the council is in the process of changing the way multi-family units, like apartment complexes, are billed for water. Whittaker said instead of an entire complex getting one big bill each month, individual tenants will be charged for their water use. Additional fees will be tacked on to each bill, which should bring in more revenue. Whittaker said the city moved forward with the rate hike plan last year to send a message to the TWDB that the city was serious about fixing its water problems.

“We’re very happy to have the money, but it’s a shame on us situation,” said Rockdale Mayor John King. “We should’ve taken care of this a long time ago.”

King said it’s disappointing that generations to come will be paying for years of non-maintenance. The money from the TWDB will allow the city to replace the 50 to 100 year old cast iron pipes, and rehabilitate and improve its wastewater treatment plant.

Brett Boren, who moved to Rockdale in 2018 and started a new barbecue business on the main drag, is ready to see a solution.

“Once our water situation gets better, we’ll get more growth,” said Boren. “And for a small business like me it’ll bring in more customers.”

City leaders agree it could attract people back to Rockdale, but first they just want to focus on improving the water for those who already live there.

“I’m super excited to get moving and finally be able to provide quality drinking water for the people of Rockdale,” said Whittaker.

4/9/2020 Update: An error was made in the original written agreement with the Texas Water Development Board approving the $27.4 million. Interim city manager Barbara Holly said the bond council for the city noticed the paperwork listed the wrong funding source. The agreement mistakenly said the money was coming from bonds backed by the tax rate, which would require voter approval. The city of Rockdale is using revenue bonds, which are being paid for by a series of incremental water customer rate hikes. Today, the TWDB approved a corrected version of the agreement.

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