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In a first, California abolishes Compton's water district board after years of dirty-water allegations

In a first, California abolishes Compton's water district board after years of dirty-water allegations
Residents gather outside the Sativa Los Angeles County Water District office during a June meeting. (Rob Gourley / Los Angeles Times)

State officials on Wednesday removed the elected board and general manager of a water district that for years has been accused of serving brown, smelly water to its customers in Compton.

With a 22-page decree, the State Water Resources Control Board abolished Sativa Los Angeles County Water District’s five-member board of directors and ousted its manager. In their place, the state appointed the county’s Department of Public Works to temporarily run the district while officials seek to merge the small district, which delivers water to about 1,600 homes, with a larger provider.

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The move marks the first time that the state has used its power to order the takeover of a water agency.

“For far too long, our residents have had to endure the unacceptable — they had no idea what would flow when they turned on their tap,” L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said. “Enough is enough. Los Angeles County is ready to step in and step up … and immediately begin to triage the situation.”

County officials will move into Sativa headquarters Thursday, said Paul Novak, executive officer of the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which monitors Sativa.

Calls to Sativa were not immediately returned.

Novak said the takeover will not immediately fix the problems that have plagued the water district, including manganese-coated pipes that discolor residents’ water. Officials estimated that $10 million to $15 million is needed to upgrade the 70-year-old pipes.

But it will get rid of the administration of a long-criticized agency accused of financial instability, nepotism, poor maintenance and mismanagement.

“These are the changes I think they will see: They will see staff that’s more accessible, that is more transparent, that is communicating with the ratepayers on a regular basis,” Novak said. “Instead of encountering a board and staff that are hostile to the ratepayers, they will have people they can come in and communicate with.”

Department of Public Works Director Mark Pestrella said the county will meet staff Thursday to take control of Sativa’s facilities and assets, then come up with a plan to deliver clean, safe water to residents.

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 1577, a bill introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), that would allow for the dismantling of the Sativa board.

Two years ago, the state water board was granted the authority to install an administrator at a failing water system. However, the role has to be paid for by the state, and the law did not provide funding.

The governor signed legislation Sept. 17 that appropriates $200,000 for a state-appointed administrator to helm Sativa. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors and the Local Agency Formation Commission had asked the state to appoint the county’s Department of Public Works as the interim administrator.

The takeover ends a long-fought battle over Sativa’s operations. Over decades, district officials have been accused of giving themselves illegal Christmas bonuses, hiring family members and lacking the funding to replace aging pipes, which deposit a high concentration of manganese into the water.

Outrage reached a boiling point when discolored water began flowing from taps with greater frequency this year. Customers posted videos online of tea-colored water coming from their faucets.

That prompted the Local Agency Formation Commission to vote in July to dissolve Sativa — a lengthy and rare process separate from state-directed takeover. The commission has scheduled a February hearing to continue the dissolution so that Sativa will no longer exist.

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The state’s decision to have L.A. County take control of Sativa boiled down to the district’s inability to provide clean, safe drinking water to its ratepayers, authorities said. The decree listed numerous violations for failing to meet water quality standards and inadequate water monitoring, as well as infrastructure problems.

“I’m excited to be serving this community and to be taking on the challenge of bringing them sustainable, clean water supply, which all residents deserve,” Pestrella said.

8:00 p.m.: This article was updated with additional context about the district.

This article was originally published at 5:15 p.m.

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