Rosalba Moralez estimated that her family spent about $150 a month on bottled water in addition to the family’s $67 monthly payment to the water district in Willowbrook, Calif.
Rosalba Moralez estimated that her family spent about $150 a month on bottled water in addition to the family’s $67 monthly payment to the water district in Willowbrook, Calif.CreditCreditRozette Rago for The New York Times
Jose A. Del Real
By Jose A. Del Real
July 24, 2019
COMPTON, Calif. — It was bath time and Rosalba Moralez heard a cry. She rushed to the bathroom and found her 7-year-old daughter, Alexxa, being doused with brown, putrid water.
“We kept running the tub, we turned on the sink, we flushed the toilet. All the water was coming out dirty,” Ms. Moralez said.
For more than a year, discolored water has regularly gushed from faucets in the family’s bathroom and kitchen, as in hundreds of other households here in Willowbrook, Calif., an unincorporated community near Compton in South Los Angeles.
The brown water, provided by the Sativa Los Angeles County Water District, first drew public outrage and local news media attention last year when customers began protesting over unexplained stomach pains and skin so itchy it had scarred from the scratching.
Elected officials were soon jolted into action. Sativa’s elected board of directors was disbanded and Los Angeles County took control of the water district. The county is now working furiously to replace dilapidated pipes and wells, and this week began new construction to reinforce Sativa’s system. But problems persist. Overhauling the district has taken far more time and money than anyone initially expected because, by the time the county stepped in last fall, the district’s infrastructure was on the brink of collapse.
Sativa is just one case, which erupted into public view after decades of neglect. The rot in California’s water system likely extends far beyond it.
As many as 1,000 community water systems in California may be at high risk of failing to deliver potable water — one out of every three — according to a previously undisclosed estimate by senior officials at the California State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates drinking water. These troubled districts, which include Sativa, often operate in mostly poor areas on thin budgets. With little oversight, they face problems ranging from bankruptcy to sudden interruptions in water capacity, to harmful toxins being delivered through taps.
Nationally, political leaders have struggled to reach consensus over how to rebuild America’s aging infrastructure, including the country’s drinking water systems, which the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D rating in its 2017 report. In California, the abundance of small water districts, a fraught culture around water rights, and significant oversight gaps have exacerbated those problems.
California has one of the most byzantine drinking water systems in the country, and even in urban parts of the state some water systems are so small they struggle to sustain their maintenance budgets. The hodgepodge of small districts are overseen by local boards — often with little to no expertise in water management — making it difficult for the state to keep track of them.
Already, more than 300 public water systems in the state are out of compliance with federal drinking water safety standards, according to publicly available data, and an estimated one million Californians are exposed to unsafe drinking water each year. Those are the ones the state knows about because their water quality has already been tested as unsafe.
Often, the state water board does not collect enough information from public water systems to catch mismanagement until the systems are already failing, or are approaching that threshold like Sativa, according to interviews with several officials. The state agency does not keep a list of suspected high-risk systems. The limited information that is collected from water districts is often scattered across agencies and levels of government, including county boundary commissions, which may be either reluctant to become involved or lack the authority to do so.
“We didn’t know how bad the problems were,” said Russ Bryden, an engineer with the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works, who took over day-to-day management of Sativa as an emergency administrator last fall. “You could not have known from the outside. Sativa was not supposed to be this bad.”
When Los Angeles County took control, officials discovered that the problems at Sativa ran even deeper than anyone knew. They found the system needed more than $10 million in urgent repairs to protect against it shutting down entirely, according to Mr. Bryden. They uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills and debts. And a rash of suspicious spending in 2017 had left the district with just $10,000, according to balances reviewed by The New York Times.
Water like mud regularly gushes from faucets in the Moralez family’s bathroom and kitchen.
County officials have attributed the discoloration of the water to high levels of manganese from old pipes, but county and state health officials say the water in the Sativa district is safe to drink; the brown color is classified as a secondary, aesthetic violation, according to federal standards.
But no one wants to drink brown water, and residents have lost faith in the district’s promises that the water is safe to use. To them, the problems at Sativa are just another example of the growing inequality they see across California.
The seamstresses, chauffeurs and domestic workers who live in Willowbrook, a community in the district that is primarily Hispanic and where 70 percent of residents speak Spanish at home, maintain neat front-yard patios where bright purple and yellow flowers bloom. But their roads are lined with potholes, vacant businesses are a common sight and many street signs are so faded they are difficult to read.
Although one in four residents here live in poverty, those who do not want to drink from their taps — which they no longer trust, even when the water is not brown — spend more money on drinking water than many families do in Beverly Hills, 20 miles away. Ms. Moralez, a home health aide, estimates her family spends about $150 a month on bottled water in addition to the family’s $67 monthly payment to the water district, which it still must pay. The family currently lives on a single income.
Anticipating another surge of brown water caused by the new construction this week, the county stockpiled huge amounts of bottled water to hand out to residents.
The distrust among residents was decades in the making, but there were few legal pathways for government intervention.
The district was issued various citations over the years, which were later enumerated in the state water board’s own October 2018 order taking control of the district, including for repeatedly failing to adequately test water quality.
Staff at the county commission that reviews municipal services began to raise alarms about Sativa’s management practices as early as 2005. By 2012, after another service review, the commission discovered that Sativa had not carried out any financial audits in seven years, and it began to push for the district to consolidate with another water utility, said Paul Novak, the executive officer at the Los Angeles Local Agency Formation Commission.
“They had no water meters, they had no computer systems, there were some extreme nepotism issues, and they were giving illegal holiday bonuses,” Mr. Novak said. “We don’t go into an agency and say, ‘You need to be dissolved or consolidated.’ But when you’re dealing with people who are, at best, incompetent, the rules have to change.”
Despite signs of mismanagement, the agency’s commissioners feared becoming mired in a costly battle to dissolve the district.
In November 2015, E. coli was detected in one of Sativa’s three wells and it was shut down after a state recommendation, leaving Sativa with just two wells, barely enough to meet its water capacity needs.
All along, the district’s leadership suffered from infighting and poor financial decision-making, said Elizabeth Hicks, who served on Sativa’s board of directors between 2003 and 2015. She described a toxic culture on the board.
“It was in shambles,” she said.
When the county took over day-to-day management of Sativa in November, Mr. Bryden, the emergency administrator, said he could not find any financial bookkeeping, including invoices, purchase orders or receipts. The county is conducting a broader audit of the district’s finances, which will be released later this summer.
Russ Bryden, an engineer with the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works, who took over day-to-day management of Sativa as an emergency administrator last fall.
Russ Bryden, an engineer with the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works, who took over day-to-day management of Sativa as an emergency administrator last fall.CreditRozette Rago for The New York Times
The financial situation appears to have only worsened in recent years. In June 2015, Sativa had nearly $600,000 in an investment fund it used as a savings account; by late 2018, there was just $10,000 left, yet the district had amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid bills and debts. A loan from City National Bank for $1.6 million was taken out during that time to build a new well, but today nearly $1 million remains unaccounted for.
Luis Landeros, the Sativa board president between 2016 and 2018, declined to comment. None of the other board members who served during that time responded to multiple requests for comment. Sativa’s former general manager, Thomas Martin, told The Los Angeles Times in September that he did not support the state’s ultimate decision to take over the troubled water district: “I was hoping it would be a different outcome,” he said. “We disagree with the legislators’ decision. We wish the best of luck to the customers.”
As the district fell into deeper financial despair over the last few years, Julia Hernandez and her family in Willowbrook became fearful of showering in the water because of intense itching they felt afterward. Ms. Hernandez said that last summer she gave her 4-year-old grandson a bath and he broke out in hives, bad enough that she had to take him to the doctor.
On a recent day, she pointed to pockmarks on her own skin, leftover scars from scratching.
The inside of her bathtub is sometimes coated with wet silt, she said. Her washing machine sometimes gets clogged and last year she had to replace her boiler, which cost her family $700.
“You put your white clothes in the washer and they come out brown,” she said.
In Sacramento, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a budget plan in June which includes $130 million annually to help distressed water systems in the state. The money will help small districts fund desperately needed repairs.
But it is unclear, however, how much that would help improve the oversight of troubled districts before they become dysfunctional and even more costly to repair.
For now, Los Angeles County has borne the brunt of the financial costs involved with rehabilitating Sativa. Of the estimated $14 million in repairs necessary, the county will likely pay for about $8 million. The rest will be covered by continued revenue — clients must still pay their bill despite the brown water — and state grants. The county is currently looking for a water utility to take Sativa over permanently, most likely a privately owned water company.
Many people in the Sativa district, even now, are skeptical that things will improve.
“People think this is the ghetto, so they don’t care,” Ms. Moralez said.