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Water issues draw attention in Texas town of Rockdale

Water issues draw attention in Texas town of Rockdale

January 10th, 2019 by Austin American-Statesman in Texas News

Rockdale's City Manager Chris Whittaker is pictured with an example of one of his city's corroded and rusted water pipes on Friday, December 21, 2018. Corroded pipes often lead to water from faucets being brown or red, causing many residents to purchase water rather than use tap water for drinking or cooking. The city's hospital also closed its doors this year. (Andy Sharp/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

ROCKDALE, Texas—Sometimes when David Pruett turns on the taps, the water runs a dark caramel.

"I don't wash the dishes when it comes out coffee-colored on me," said Pruett, 27. "There's been plenty of times, I've been in the shower, washing my hair or something, and it suddenly looks like I'm bathing in Coke. I don't drink the water here. I can't. My stomach gets upset. My system can't handle what's in the water here."

The Austin American-Statesman reports state regulators and officials in Rockdale, about an hour's drive northeast of Austin in Milam County, say the water, which residents have complained about for decades, is safe to drink.

This month, the Rockdale City Council could vote to raise water rates to replace miles of corroded pipes.

But any rate increase would come as Rockdale is trying to fight out of an economic tailspin as medical facilities close, school enrollment dwindles, drug problems persist, and a manufacturing base evaporates. The problem of the reddish water and the encrusted, century-old pipes serve as a metaphor for Rockdale itself, a rust belt city in a corner of Central Texas.

For more than a century, Rockdale was a proud coal-mining community, home to some of Texas' greatest stores of lignite. The Aluminum Company of America—also known as Alcoa—put one of its giant smelting operations here in the 1950s. The population suddenly tripled, from 2,300 in 1954 to 6,300 in 1958.

But in 2008, citing a turbulent global aluminum market and trouble getting reliable electricity to its smelter, Alcoa laid off 820 workers as it curtailed operations. Then, late in 2017, the company said it was permanently closing the site and electricity generator Luminant announced that more than 130 people would lose their jobs as it wound down operations at its coal-fired power plant.

Last month, Little River Healthcare shuttered a hospital and four other medical facilities after filing for bankruptcy, leading to job losses for an additional 300 people.

Today Rockdale is home to about 5,700 people, and they tend to be older and poorer than most Texans. Median household income is about $35,000, and the median age is 36.9; for Texas generally, the median household income is about $56,000, and the age is 33.9. School district enrollment in Rockdale has dropped by 17 percent over the last decade, and the portion of economically disadvantaged students has jumped from 53.1 percent to 67.8 percent. (The Austin district's portion of students who are economically disadvantaged is 53.4 percent.)

"We made it through the Alcoa layoff, we made it through the Luminant layoff, and now we have this layoff," Mario Casarez, a workforce development specialist with Texas Workforce Solutions in Rockdale, said of the Little River Healthcare closures. "But Rockdale is going to make it."

After the Alcoa layoff, many people got nursing licenses. "Now they've gotten laid off again. We're seeing some of the same people coming through again" for job retraining and application advice, he said.

On an old tube television that doubles as a table in the office of City Manager Chris Whittaker—City Hall occupies an old bank building downtown—sit fragments of the sorts of concrete-asbestos and cast-iron water pipes that have bedeviled this city.

A person can barely get a finger through some of the pipes, so encrusted are they with mineral deposits and rust. Generations of Rockdale residents have known that their white shirts and sheets risk coming out red-dyed each time they're laundered, depending on whether lines are being flushed or repaired in such a way that loosens flakes of material from the pipes.

The water is sampled at least once a month, and it has largely received passing grades from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

"My dogs drink the water," said Whittaker, who has been city manager since 2014. "I drink the water."

Tests for lead and copper have been negative, and, as of October, the public water supply system was found to meet state and federal drinking water safety standards. Still, the city was found to have violated standards for corrosivity, iron and manganese; those violations are based on the "aesthetic nature of the water," according to state officials. Iron and manganese found in the water can impart a bitter or metallic taste and cause water discoloration, but "corrosive water itself does not pose a health risk when consumed," according to state officials.

But city officials say repairing the pipes is key to repairing the confidence, spirit and
attractiveness of Rockdale.

Whittaker says the city has had to undertake more than 1,400 water line repairs since he became city manager in 2014. The city's chief water treatment plant was built in 1954 and is overdue for replacement, according to city officials, and it was not designed to treat the iron and manganese that authorities say occurs naturally in the groundwater and has now built up in the pipes.

The city has applied to the Texas Water Development Board for a $48 million aid package, chiefly in the form of low-interest loans, to pay for upgrades of water and wastewater infrastructure in the city.

That's where the water rates come in: To pay the state back, City Council members likely would approve rate increases.

A homeowner who consumes about 2,000 gallons a month could see the monthly rate climb from the current $25.88 to $65.81 by 2023, according a report by a consultant hired by the city.

"We can kick the can down the road, but I don't intend to be that city manager," said Whittaker, who estimates the job could have been done for $20 million in the 1980s.

But even the people most eager for a revamped water system blanch at the costs.

"Them raising the water rate at this point is ridiculous," said Pruett, who spends about $10 a month on water jugs. Working at Luminant as a full-time contractor, he earned about $3,000 a month. Now, at an auto parts store where he works part time, he makes $1,000 a month, he said.

The water infrastructure "needs fixing, and everybody's complaining—but no one wants to pay the astronomical costs," said a city employee who asked not to be identified because of her job.

Over at Shawnee's Hair Salon in central Rockdale, proprietor Shawnee Hornung, tending to a client's head, suggested the problem might not be all that dire: "We've never had someone's hair turn orange."

Rockdale might as well be named Resiliency.

At the nonprofit Sho' Nuff soul food restaurant, where the menu changes daily, some of the employees are formerly incarcerated—part of the restaurant's stated mission of giving second chances.

The historic Kay Theater, a 1947 building with a Deco-style facade, has been re-purposed as a wedding and event space. And the community's historical society has restored its railroad depot and converted it into a museum, complete with a vintage train and an operational blacksmith shop.

But digging out of the current situation poses a tough challenge.

Whittaker says the city is primed for a new influx of jobs. Beijing-based Bitmain Technologies announced in August that it would launch a new data center in Rockdale—and pledged to hire 400 people and to work with local schools to provide professional and technical training programs to prepare community members for careers with the data center. Bitmain is a leader in energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining, which requires access to the kind of electricity available at the shuttered Alcoa and Luminant plants to power computer servers that create the building blocks of bitcoin and other digital currencies.

But the August announcement could be mirage-like.

So far only a dozen or so people work at the company's Rockdale operations, according to Whittaker, and an American-Statesman request for more information to the company's public relations firm went unreturned.

On Christmas, CoinDesk, an online newsletter about blockchain news, reported that Bitmain Technologies said it would undertake layoffs.

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