Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Does tiny Maywood need three private water companies?

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In the southeast Los Angeles County town of Maywood, people have long complained about tap water that comes out of the faucet yellowed and smelling of rotten eggs. Now, there’s a bill awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature that could provide the funds to clean up the city’s water – and water politics.

Maywood is just one square mile, but it is serviced by three private water companies. Those jurisdictions converge on King Street in the small city.

"My right foot’s standing on Water Company No. 3," said Leonardo Vilchis of the community group Union de Vecinos. "My left foot is standing on Water Company No. 1  and from here a little bit to the left, we have Water Company No. 2." 

For years, Vilchis has advocated for people concerned about Maywood's water rates and quality. He points out that because of the three water companies, neighbors pay different rates and, at times, for different quality water.

Resident Robert Taylor lives on the east side of King Street. He gets his water from Maywood Mutual Water Company No. 1, and he doesn’t like what comes out of his faucet.

"It’s kind of brown, almost like tea, and it tastes like rotten eggs," said Taylor.

Benjamin Piceno agrees. Like many people who live in Maywood, he gets his drinking water from water stores known as waterias. They charge 99 cents for five-gallon containers of what’s advertised as filtered water.  

"It doesn’t taste like water," Pecino said of the city’s tap water, adding that it tastes "dirty."

Questions about the quality of Maywood’s water have lingered for years. Repeated testing by the state shows Maywood water is safe to drink, but complaints of taste and smell remain. Meanwhile, most of the public can't influence the water companies' policies. That’s because the companies are privately owned, and thus are only accountable to their shareholders -- property owners. Roughly seven out of 10 Maywood residents are renters. They can't attend water company meetings, and have no say about what they're drinking or how much they pay for their water.

There are an estimated 500 such water companies in California; the state does not have a comprehensive list.

State Assemblyman Anthony Rendon represents the area; he says the private water companies should come clean and act more like public agencies.

"These private companies provide a public good – water – which is one of the most basic human needs, and they should therefore be required to be transparent and accountable as well," Rendon said.

Rendon authored Assembly Bill 240, which would require the private water companies to follow several open records laws.  He says it’s the first step in bringing a lot more sunshine to southeast L.A. County politics.

"I represent a district where half of the cities have former council members in jail," he said. "I represent a district where four of the eight cities have a total of seven former council members in jail. There’s very little public confidence in my district and specifically in this community."

But separating the politics from the water isn’t so easy, according to Sergio Palos, owner of Maywood Mutual Water Company No. 1.

"If they take us over, more than likely it isn’t going to be for the benefit of the community. It’s going to be for the benefit of the politicians," he said.

Palos claims AB 240 is a power grab by two local water heavyweights. The Water Replenishment District would get up to $7 million to clean up Maywood’s water problems. And Palos fears the Central Basin Municipal Water District - which has jurisdiction in Maywood - is angling for more influence there. A former Central Basin employee, Gil Cedillo Jr., ran for the board of Maywood Mutual Water Company No. 3 last year.

The WRD and Central Basin, both public agencies, have repeatedly faced questions over the spending of public money on consultant fees and contracts. Central Basin is the target of an FBI corruption investigation.  

Palos worries AB 240 would import big time politics into his small time operation.

"There’s something wrong with the system when they’ve got politicians in their back pocket and the politicians have something to gain and it’s always, always money," he said.

The governor has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto the bill. 

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