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Fake out of Compton? Brown, smelly water sparks concerns and allegations of a political ruse

Fake out of Compton? Brown, smelly water sparks concerns and allegations of a political ruse
During Monday's town hall, Compton resident Maria Villarreal holds up a bottle containing brown water that she said came from the tap in her home. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Residents of Compton have complained about brown, smelly water coming out of their taps for more than a year.

And when officials began talking about dissolving the troubled local water district, the area’s congresswoman scheduled a town hall meeting so community members could weigh in.

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Before the day arrived, however, an ad appeared on Craigslist offering “political advocacy” work to African Americans and Latinos — promising to pay $40, with the possibility of an additional bonus.

A sea of critics showed up at the forum Monday, denouncing the Sativa Los Angeles County Water District. Among them was a smaller contingent of defenders holding up signs with slogans such as “Bad water myth created.”

Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán started the meeting by suggesting that some in the audience had been paid to pose as residents supporting the district, although she did not say who she believed was behind the ruse or accuse anyone specifically.

Cole Edwards said in an interview with The Times before the meeting that the water district had hired him to place the Craigslist ad and find supporters. The Times reviewed text messages and emails he said he exchanged with a district official, along with a list of questions supporters were to ask at the forum. He said the plan was to hide the water district’s involvement. Edwards said he didn’t believe the plan was right and thought it should be exposed so he contacted The Times.

Organizer Kathrina Abrot said in an interview that she worked with the water district and Edwards to hire canvassers who were tasked with finding people to attend the town hall. She said she didn’t know if any of the canvassers spoke at the meeting but that they did not pay people simply to do so.

Sativa, which serves parts of working-class Compton and Willowbrook, strongly denied that it hired the supporters.

Administrative manager Maria Rachelle Garza said she was unaware of people being paid to attend the meeting, or that a Craigslist ad even existed.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Garza said, adding that she didn't know Edwards or Abrot. “I have no idea what that is about, but I’ll check with my district staff.”

Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán, right, tries to calm the concerns of Compton resident Maria Villarreal, who says brown water flows from the faucets of her home.
Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán, right, tries to calm the concerns of Compton resident Maria Villarreal, who says brown water flows from the faucets of her home. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Sativa has faced years of complaints from consumers and survived earlier attempts to disband it. The Times in 2013 reported allegations of poor financial oversight and mismanagement at the district, including that the board members had awarded themselves bereavement pay and Christmas bonuses not allowed under state law.

The water quality issue, however, is the most serious challenge yet.

County officials insist that the brown water is safe to drink but acknowledge that it contains higher than normal levels of manganese. They said the problem comes from aging pipes, and that the district occasionally flushes out sediment that builds up in the system. The pipes need to be replaced in a multimillion-dollar infrastructure project, according to Garza.

Still, a county governing agency voted last week to begin the process of disbanding Sativa.

Most residents who spoke at Monday’s forum expressed concerns over adverse health effects from drinking and bathing in the water. Some said the brown and yellow-brown water coming out of faucets has worsened in recent months. Others wanted to know how Sativa would fix the issue.

When it was Maria Villarreal’s turn, she pulled out a bottle with dark brown water and complained that the district wasn’t doing enough. She said she had complained many times.

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“I’m tired, and they don’t do anything,” she said before storming away.

For years, discolored and odorous water occasionally came out of Martha Barajas’ faucets. She said it got worse in recent years, flowing chestnut brown or yellow and smelling like rust or chlorine. She said she complained but saw no lasting change.

The 47-year-old mother, along with some neighbors, formed a social media group called Sativa Clients. They and other customers posted hundreds of videos chronicling the water conditions.

A sea of critics showed up at the forum Monday, denouncing the Sativa Los Angeles County Water District. Among them was a smaller contingent of defenders.
A sea of critics showed up at the forum Monday, denouncing the Sativa Los Angeles County Water District. Among them was a smaller contingent of defenders. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In May, Rosario Pacheco, who identified herself as a representative of the water board, filed for a temporary restraining order against Barajas. In the application, Pacheco alleged that Barajas “had a car packed w[ith] women that looked gang affiliated” and “drove her vehicle almost to the point of hitting” her from behind. The restraining order application also alleged that Barajas had verbally confronted Pacheco and threatened her. A judge ordered Barajas to stay away from Pacheco, according to Barajas’ attorney, Mark Ravis.

Pacheco said in a phone interview that she no longer works for Sativa before saying she did not speak English well enough for a longer discussion.

A court hearing scheduled for Thursday could determine whether the restraining order is approved or denied.

Barajas said the order is part of a larger campaign by the water district to attack opponents. District officials could not be reached to respond to that accusation. But they have denied any wrongdoing and said they simply are trying to provide water to residents.

In a statement released Tuesday, Sativa said it “absolutely and categorically denies that it in any way paid anyone to attend or speak on behalf of the district. The allegation that the district engaged in any such inappropriate conduct is simply misplaced.”

In a video of the forum posted on the congresswoman’s Facebook page, a man who later identified himself to The Times as Kelvin Smith read from a notebook and asked three questions. The material that Edwards provided to The Times before the meeting listed those same three questions, in the same order, and stated that they were assigned to be asked by a “Kelvin Smith.”

Smith said at the meeting that he didn’t live in the district, but his mother did and had requested that he ask the questions.

Barragán said she was concerned about the Craiglist ad but that she doesn’t want it to distract from the goal of getting clear water to the community.

“It’s disturbing that anyone would feel it necessary to hire paid supporters to dilute the outrage from Sativa customers receiving dirty brown water,” she said in a statement.

11 a.m.: This post was updated with an additional comment from Edwards.

Posted at 4 a.m.

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