COMPTON — Customers of the Sativa Water District, which serves Willowbrook and parts of Compton, are complaining that the water they bathe in, wash their clothes and drink is discolored and getting darker.
This week they seem to be getting help from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and their congressional representative.
Acting on an urgency motion by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the Board of Supervisors voted April 24 to activate a strike team to investigate reports that brown water is running through taps in Willowbrook and Compton and to take immediate steps to prevent any serious risks to public health.
“This is alarming,” Ridley-Thomas said. “While it is ultimately the state that holds the authority to regulate Sativa’s water quality, all state and local entities have a moral obligation to ensure our residents have safe and clean water.”
“It is incumbent upon the county Department of Public Health to investigate immediately,” he added. “If there is a health risk, we are committed to working with state regulators to come up with immediate and long-term solutions.”
The next day, U.S. Rep. Nanette Barragan joined U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, in introducing the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act of 2018, a bill that would provide clean and safe drinking water to millions of people while creating nearly a million jobs.
“This is the type of investment we need to be making in our communities,” Barragán said. “Instead of giving out tax breaks for the 1 percent we need to ensure cities like Compton have clean water to drink.”
In a move that looked like damage control, officials from the Sativa Water District held a press conference April 24.
Representatives from Sativa Water turned on a fire hydrant and drenched the sidewalk with what looked like clear water. There was no speech or statement read, just the demonstration of clear water.
Vanita Merryman, a Compton resident for more than 20 years, attended the press conference. She called the water that came out of her pipes “terrible.”
“The water is as dark as my skin,” she said. It’s been going off and on for two years. Ever so often they’d flush the water. Right here on 139th and Willington; a crew would come and flush the fire hydrant washing the streets with water. It would only be clear temporarily.”
Karen Lewis, another longtime resident at the press conference, said has been experiencing brown water for many years.
She said she spent $4,000 on a water filter for her home because she couldn’t take the “dark rusty water,” any longer.
“Since mid-March, until they flushed it in April, the water was more brown and rusty and got dark and it stayed that way. The residents never got notices or anything about what this was.”
Lewis and a small group of about 40 frustrated residents were chatting together and sharing horror stories of skin rashes.
Royce Esters, president and CEO of the National Association for the Equal Justice in America, said the dirty water is another form of environmental Jim Crow. He referred to the water problem in Flint, Michigan, where the governor allowed lead-based water into the homes of thousands of families.
“This is a violation of these families’ civil rights,” Esters said. “They don’t let this happen in Beverly Hills. Our civil rights groups know the law. Every one has the right to clear air and clean water.”
Attorney Mark Ravis is one of at least two attorneys building cases against the people responsible.
“Of all the small water district companies in California, this one is probably the worst,” Ravis said. “Sativa services about 1,600 houses in this area; a small group of people that have been labeled ‘severely disadvantaged.’”
“The Board of Supervisors should have eliminated Sativa years ago. Now the water is causing health problems. Families can’t drink this water. There’s no excuse. The monthly payments are being collected and we know how that money has been used.”
The company that’s responsible for the water in this district is an independently and family-owned business.
Sativa Water’s service area is relatively small, only one-half of a square mile, and it maintains two active wells at two plant locations. The water pipes are believed to have been built when the district was created in the 1930s.
In a statement, Sativa Water said, “The discoloration in our system’s water does not pose a health threat. Sativa County Water District takes discolored and brown tap water reports and concerns seriously, as discoloration in the water we serve our customers leads to concerns about the safety and appearance of the water.
“Recently, the [district] has implemented a more aggressive flushing program that requires flushing the system four times a year and began in early April. District crews open fire hydrants and blow-off valves to flow high-velocity water in a planned route.
“The cause of the recent water discoloration reports experienced by our customers was due to sediment build up due to the lack of high-velocity flushing in a very old pipeline system. Residents have been notified that at times, these flushing activities stir and ‘kick up’ decades of sediment buildup within our pipes.”