Lead Story West Edition

Legislation allows state takeover of Sativa Water

By Dorany Pineda

Contributing Writer

COMPTON — A state administrator will assume control of the Sativa Los Angeles County Water District following widespread complaints from residents of dirty, dark and musky water flowing from their faucets –– complaints that ignited a statewide investigation and attempts to eliminate the Sativa district.

The interim administrator, who is expected to take over in several months, will be responsible for evaluating the condition of existing water facilities, identifying any improvements needed to ensure clean and safe drinking water, and make sure that the water quality meets regulatory standards, according to legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown Sept. 28.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 1577 or the California Safe Drinking Water Act, empowers the State Water Resources Control Board to appoint an interim administrator to take control of the embattled Sativa district.

The governor’s signature marks the first time the state board has taken over a water district.

Earlier this year, Sativa customers from parts of Willowbrook and Compton complained of dirty and dark water coming out of their faucets, sparking investigations by the county Board of Supervisors and efforts by a state commission to eliminate the water district.

In April, Compton resident Vanita Merryman described the water coming out of her pipes as “terrible.”

“The water is as dark as my skin,” she said during a press conference. “It’s been going off and on for two years. Every so often they’d flush the water … [but] it would only be clear temporarily.”

In response, county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the county distributed 20,000 water bottles to affected residents.

“This legislation is a step in the right direction for the customers of Sativa,” U.S. Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán, D-San Pedro, who represents the area in Congress. “I am committed to continuing to work with state and Los Angeles County officials until a long-term water service provider is identified and all households have clean and safe drinking water. I stand in support of my constituents and am proud of their tireless advocacy on this issue.”

AB 1577 would effectively dissolve the water company and require Sativa to accept administrative and managerial services, including full management and control. The legislation Brown signed Sept. 17 will allocate $200,000 for the administrator selected to manage the water district. In all, the selection process could take two to three months, officials said.

Days after Brown signed the bill, Ridley-Thomas and County Supervisor Janice Hahn filed a motion that would authorize the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works to take over the district until a long-term water service provider is assigned. According to a document sent by Barragan’s office, the Board of Supervisors is expected to approve the motion.

“On a high level, the legislation directs us to work with the county to appoint an administrator and provides funding to pay for the administrator,” said George Kostyrko of the State Water Resources Control Board. “However, this is a local issue and we need to work with the local agencies on this.”

Sativa Water, a relatively small company that covers only one-half of a square mile, maintains two active wells at two plant locations and serves roughly 1,600 homes in Compton and Willowbrook.

Since 2005, the company has faced challenges in meeting its mandate, Paul Novak, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, told City News Service in July. A 2012 review cited “management inefficiencies, lack of financial strength and failure to follow state requirements regarding independent audits.”

“Sativa board members have ignored their responsibilities, abused their positions and even had the nerve to give themselves bonuses, all while their customers dealt with brown, dirty tap water,” said Hahn, who sits on the formation commission, said in a statement following a July 11 vote to dissolve the company.

After months of customer complaints about the dirty water, public health officials tested the discolored water and concluded that it posed no health risk, though they did find higher than normal levels of manganese, according to county officials. Customers, however, still were hesitant to drink or use the water for bathing or cooking, resorting instead to bottled water and calling public officials to complain.

County officials told the Los Angeles Times in June that the discolored water comes from aging pipes, which are believed to have been built in the 1930s when the district was created.

Though the dissolution of Sativa will be a slow process, the governor’s actions is a triumph for Compton and Willowbrook residents and district officials.

“This is a victory for the people,” Hahn said. “By putting the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works in charge, residents will finally have a capable, trustworthy water provider they can count on. There is a lot more work that needs to be done, but we are in it for the long haul for the customers of Sativa.”