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Customers sue embattled Compton water district over discolored water

Customers sue embattled Compton water district over discolored water
Sativa customer Karen Lewis holds a jar of discolored water that came from her faucet. (Robert Goulrey / Los Angeles Times)

Frustrated by discolored drinking water pouring from their taps, four Compton residents filed a class-action lawsuit late Monday against their water provider, Sativa Los Angeles County Water District.

The lawsuit, filed at Los Angeles County Superior Court, accuses Sativa of failing to provide quality drinking water, misappropriating taxpayer dollars and causing a financial burden on its low-income customers in Compton and Willowbrook. It comes days before a crucial decision by county oversight officials on whether to dissolve the small public water district.

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“Sativa mismanaged public funds by failing to use them for the intended purpose of maintaining and improving the water district’s infrastructure for the delivery of potable water,” the lawsuit alleges.

The claims in the suit echo some raised by oversight authorities about Sativa in recent years.

The district has been accused of financial instability, nepotism, poor maintenance and mismanagement. It has fended off two previous dissolution attempts by L.A. County’s Local Agency Formation Commission — the state-appointed body charged with monitoring special districts.

The commission meets Wednesday to consider initiating its third attempt to dissolve the district.

That decision will come amid mounting complaints by residents of discolored water that smells of chlorine or rust. Residents said the water stains white clothes and forces them to purchase bottled water with which to drink, cook and bathe, according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs include four mothers who said they are affected by water problems dating as far back as five years.

“It’s a wake-up call for everybody, even for those who [oversee] the district,” said Martha Barajas, one of the plaintiffs. “Maybe people will listen to us now.

“We’ve given Sativa plenty of time to fix the problems,” she added.

The 1,600 households served by Sativa pay a flat rate of $65 a month, adding up to nearly $1.3 million in annual revenue.

Sativa says it lacks the estimated $10 million to $15 million needed to upgrade the 70-year-old pipes it blames for depositing manganese in drinking water, which can make faucets run brown.

The lawsuit states Sativa “miserably failed again and again” to meet state clean drinking waters standards. It points to a compliance order from the State Water Resources Control Board last month that said Sativa violated the state’s health and safety code when it neglected to maintain the minimum water pressure, delivered “muddy water” and did not engage in proper flushing.

The order said water tested from Sativa wells, faucets and hoses contained higher-than-normal levels of manganese and was sometimes cloudier than standards allow. The state water board noted that from March 2017 to May 2018, Sativa received at least 97 complaints of brown water from customers.

In addition to dirty drinking water, Sativa has come under fire after The Times reported allegations that the district had hired paid supporters to attend a forum to address the problem. Sativa’s board and its administrative manager, Maria Rachelle Garza, strongly denied any involvement. Days later, Garza was placed on leave.

The defendants in the lawsuit are Sativa and its five board members: Luis Landeros, Christina Casillas, Juan Aguilar, Roxsana Zepeda and Lucia Castrellon. They could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Landeros previously told The Times that the district is working to fix the problem but needs financial help from the state and county.

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