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Compton Has A Muddy Water Problem. Here's What It'll Take To Fix It

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Compton resident Karen Lewis addresses Sativa's general manager Maria Rachelle Garza during Q&A. (Josie Huang / LAist)

A troubled water district serving 1,600 ratepayers in Compton and Willowbrook is fighting for its existence, after complaints of discolored water coming out of taps have led to calls for its dissolution.

More than 150 people turned out in Compton for a meeting Monday night, most of them there to criticize the Sativa Los Angeles County Water District for failing to clear up its muddy water.

THE BACKSTORY

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Complaints about the discolored water date back months. The problem? Sediment build-up in the water district's aging pipes.

Public health officials say the water, darkened by high levels of the mineral manganese, is safe to use. But....

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Samples of water from the Sativa water district. (Josie Huang / LAist)

So it's not surprising customers avoid drinking the water. They also avoid using it for cooking or bathing. Compton resident Genoveva Camargo said the water at her home has looked dirty since she moved there a year ago. Her daughter, now three, broke out in rashes.

"When she sees the water running brown, she doesn't want to shower," Camargo said. "I have to shower her every day, so I have to buy gallons and gallons of water."

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HOW UNUSUAL IS THIS PROBLEM?

It's actually a common problem. It just doesn't usually last this long.

Water districts regularly open fire hydrants and increase water flow to flush out discolored buildup. That's usually enough to alleviate brown water issues and typically, customers would only see it for a few hours or a day. The brown water in Compton and Willowbrook has been around since mid-April.

WHO ARE THE SATIVA CUSTOMERS?

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Many are low-income and officials have acknowledged that, on the whole, they cannot afford a rate hike substantive enough to pay for upgrades. (Currently, each household pays a flat $67.84, as the water is not metered.)

SO WHAT'S NEW?

The months of complaints prompted a county-wide regulatory body to last week start the process of dismantling the water district and replacing it with another agency.

Monday night's meeting was second town hall organized in as many months by Democratic U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán. The congresswoman told the audience, "We're here because we believe everybody regardless of your zip code deserves clean water."

WHO SHOWED UP?

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Barragán expressed concern that not everybody was at the event for the right reasons. She threw up a slide of a Craigslist ad looking for people in the Compton area to attend a two-hour meeting for $40. The ad made no mention of the water district, but Barragán alleged that whoever was behind it was paying people to come to her town hall and "pretend like they were customers, to say good things about the water company."

She warned any such individuals to not participate in the Q&A session -- and they didn't.

In a statement issued the next day, Sativa's general manager Maria Garza wrote "the district absolutely and categorically denies that it in any way paid anyone to attend or speak on behalf of the district."

Monday night was dominated by dozens of people who lined up and vented their frustration directly to Garza.

"I don't trust you," Karen Lewis said, glaring at Garza, seated just feet away. "I want another entity in here."

SO WHAT'S THE FUTURE FOR THE SATIVA WATER DISTRICT?

The Los Angeles Local Agency Formation Commission voted June 13 to pursue dissolution. LAFCO will vote July 11 to adopt a resolution to legally begin the work.

"Staff will be working to determine which agency is willing and best suitable to take over the services of Sativa county water district," said Adriana Romo, LAFCO's deputy executive officer.

The dissolution process could take up to a year, but Romo said her agency is trying to cut that down to nine months. She said Assemblymember Mike Gipson has introduced a bill that would designate a state administrator to oversee the district while LAFCO searches for a successor agency.

"Hopefully in the shortest amount of time possible, Sativa (customers) can have clean water," Romo said.

A staff report had found that the district has struggled with years of operational issues. LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who sits on the commission, said in a statement that problems include "include inadequate water sources and storage capacity, an absence of water meters, aging water mains, inadequate operational and management resources, and an inactive contaminated well that needs to be properly destroyed."

WHAT DO SATIVA OFFICIALS HAVE TO SAY?

Garza's response: The district's board "wants to just work with everybody to see what's the best solution for the district."

Garza maintained that should another agency take over, it'd still face the same conundrum: Finding the $10 to $15 million needed to update pipes that are 70 to 80 years old. She said the district currently has $1.5 million of that amount.

For the short-term, Garza says infrastructure upgrades are being made in parts of the district where the water discoloration problem is particularly bad. She said a recent survey found that 7 percent of 970 respondents had complained of no improvement in their water quality.

"That's why we made a plan to immediately fix the infrastructure in that area," said Garza, who said the worst cases were concentrated among 60 to 70 homes on two streets.

Garza said upgrades to the entire district will require state and federal funding, and that the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and Barragan's office are trying to help locate grants.

HOW LONG BEFORE CUSTOMERS SEE IMPROVEMENTS?

On Monday night, Garza refrained from giving exact timelines. Sativa customer Camargo said she is not counting on any improvement in her water anytime soon.

"They just say they're fixing the problem, they're fixing the problem," said Camargo, who is 27. "Then, tell us when is the problem going to end?"

Pasadena-based lawyer, Jorge Reyes, hopes that some of the customers will join a class-action suit that he said he plans on filing as early as Friday. He was among those who spoke at the meeting in Compton. This prompted Barragán to urge potential complainants to read the fine print, and understand that lawyers will take a large cut to recover their fees.

"Don't be fooled into thinking you're going to get a $1 million, ok?," she said.


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