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Students receive bottled water after South L.A. schools report murky tap water

Cloudy water reported at South L.A. schools

Grape Street Elementary is one of five schools to raise concerns over water safety. 

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Teachers handed out bottled water to hundreds of students at Grape Street Elementary School on Wednesday amid concerns about murky, discolored water flowing from taps and fountains at that school and four others in South Los Angeles.

The precautions are the latest hits to Watts and the neighboring community of Green Meadows where residents have complained for months of cloudy and yellowish tap water not fit for bathing or drinking.

Their frustrations were stoked recently with the revelation that for six hours in January residents received untreated well water — and were not notified of the lapse for more than three months. 

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson held up a water bottle with copper-colored water. He said that residents have brought him samples from their water faucets that range in color from a deep red clay to opaque.

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Harris-Dawson and Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represent residents in the affected area, called on the Department of Water and Power to explain both the delay in notifying residents and the cloudy water.

“We learned a lot from the failed leadership in Flint, Michigan,” Buscaino said, referring to the lead water contamination crisis that city and state officials have been accused of mishandling.  “We are no Flint, Michigan.”

On Jan. 15, between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., officials said, a water treatment pump malfunctioned at the 99th Street Wells Water Treatment Facility, affecting 20,000 residents in Watts and Green Meadows. The DWP sent letters in April notifying residents of the incident.

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The State Water Resources Control Board said the DWP violated federal law by failing to disclose the incident within the next business day. DWP faces a penalty of up to $1,000 per day for each day the violation occurred, according to a 14-page citation issued by the state water board.

Marty Adams, DWP’s senior assistant general manager in charge of the water system, said the water treatment operator on duty missed the alarm that sounds when the water pump malfunctions. When the problem was discovered, staff members rushed to fix the treatment equipment.  However, the operator did not report the incident.

“It was not reported up the chain,” Adams said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “This was why there was a delay in the letter. DWP didn’t find out about it until the monthly audit of water quality.”

Adams said the failed water pump is not related to the water discoloration experienced by residents, which is still being investigated.

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Causes could come from higher levels of iron and manganese in the Central Basin wells that serve the area, high velocity pumping by street sweeping trucks from fire hydrants which may stir up sediment in the pipes, and a recent incident of a damaged fire hydrant in the neighborhood that “kicked up” sediment within the pipes.

The age of pipes is not a factor, DWP said in a press release, because the pipes in this area of the city are relatively new, having mostly been replaced in the 1980s and 1990s.

At Grape Street Elementary, meanwhile, plastic bags covered water fountains to discourage students from drinking the tap water. The Watts school, with 660 pre-K to fifth-grade students, is awaiting the results of water quality tests. 

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Grape Street is one of five schools to raise concerns over water safety.  Administrators at Compton Avenue, Florence Griffith Joyner, 96th Street and Lovelia Flournoy elementary schools have also complained of murky tap water in recent weeks.

Testing conducted by the Department of Water and Power at those schools detected no bacteria and found the chlorinated levels met federal guidelines. DWP officials maintain the water is safe to drink. 

Still, crews flushed the plumbing lines at the four schools to clear any debris that may have caused the discoloration, said Robert Laughton, LAUSD’s director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

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Watts resident Manuel Burgos said sometimes the water is tinted yellow and other times it’s cloudy. On a few occasions, he said, he has had to let the water run for an hour before it was suitable to bathe his children.

“I thought maybe our pipes were old,” Burgos, 44, said.  “I didn’t know it was a citywide problem.”

His family doesn’t drink from the tap, and he never thought the neighborhood elementary school was experiencing the same issue until he picked his daughter up from pre-kindergarten at Grape Street on Wednesday.

Four-year-old Heaven Davila exited the school and grabbed her father’s hand. In her free arm, she cradled a bottle of water.

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angel.jennings@latimes.com

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