BOULDER CREEK – As Boulder Creek residents rebuilt their lives in the aftermath of the CZU Lighting Complex fire, inconsistent access to clean drinking water continued to plague progress in 2021. Big Basin Water Co. customers endured multiple water outages, accompanied by weeks-long boil water orders amidst reconstructing their lives, homes and businesses.
The company itself has continued to struggle in recovering from substantial fire damage. The purveyor lost the majority of its infrastructure in the fire, including its water filter plant. Big Basin’s office – along with its paper records – burned in the fire.
The Sentinel documented that customers were without clean water for months after the CZU fire. Boil water orders persisted for some until January of 2021.
But the problems didn’t stop there.
Tap water runs at Big Basin Water customer Daniela Apostol’s home during a Boil Water notice. Apostol said she uses bottle water to drink, cook and brush her teeth with when the notice is in place. (Hannah Hagemann / Santa Cruz Sentinel)
The purveyor has been supplying roughly 500 remaining households with water from a singular well. A well that previously served only as a backup during dry summer months. Ratepayers also went through another shutoff and boil water order in June. In October alone, customers saw three water outages and two boil water orders, which lasted a week to two weeks. Separately, some residents have reported taps running brown. Jim Moore told the Sentinel in November that he and his wife had stopped taking salaries, to keep the business running.
“We are totally dependent on water for our daily lives and Big Basin is failing us,” said customer Daniela Apostol in October.
Throughout the year, Apostol and others reported challenges getting basic information on critical issues such as shutoffs or boil water notices.
“All of the information that we get is just through word of mouth from our neighbor, or postings on Facebook, but a lot of people like myself don’t have a Facebook account,” said customer John Armstrong in October.
In the fall, the company contracted with an statewide calling center that residents said has frequently not had answers to their questions.
“It’s like prying open a safe with a crowbar, you just have to scratch away to try and get information,” Armstrong said.
In at least two instances, residents waited days before receiving notice that boiling water would be necessary.
“We need accountability and transparency,” said customer Jen Parks. “If there are sanitation issues involved, it’s a health and life hazard.”
When a water system loses pressure, Jennifer Clary, California director of Clean Water Action, explained in November, bacteria such as E.coli can leech into the water supply.
“Because E.coli is a bacteria, a single use can create illness, particularly in vulnerable populations,” Clary said. “That’s why you issue a boil water order. It’s extremely serious.”
Other residents cited the financial hardship buying water, as well as the physical toll it took to transport heavy jugs of purified water.
“Because of our age, and the fact both of us have physical handicaps, it’s difficult to lug the water back and forth. We can do 1 gallon, it’s difficult to do the 5-gallon containers,” ratepayer Linda Moore said in November of her and her husband, who are of no relation to Big Basin owner Jim Moore.
Still, Linda Moore and other residents said they empathized with the family-run business.
“Everybody wants Jim to land on his feet, but you can’t be putting a whole community at risk by not having a reliable water source,” Big Basin Water customer Roger Wapner said in May.
Residents’ concerns were echoed by the State Water Resources Control Board.
Beginning in 2016, the regulators documented sanitary issues with the water company. In 2018, they requested Big Basin Water make nearly $3 million in upgrades. In May 2021, the board ordered the company to make those overdue upgrades, as well as fortify the system for future wildfires. In August the board hit the company with a subsequent citation for failing to take action on the compliance order.
Big Basin’s historic issues were only exacerbated by the CZU Complex, said San Lorenzo Valley Water District Manager Rick Rogers. The district has worked to assist Big Basin since the CZU Complex fire, and recently provided maintenance crews to the company when a pipe burst, as well as access to a water fill up station to those without drinking water.
Apostol stands next to her water filtration system she installed in her Boulder Creek home. Apostol estimates she’s spent around $5,000 dealing with a year of boil water orders and tap shutoffs. In the wake of the fire, she chose to rent an apartment for a month when Big Basin was still testing water for fire-linked contaminants like benzene and taps were not running. Then, after she moved back in, she bought a UV water filtration system for her house so she could feel okay cooking and brushing her teeth. “I have no confidence in the water quality,” Apostle said. (Hannah Hagemann / Santa Cruz Sentinel)
“It was struggling before the fire,” Rogers said. “I think the fire pushed it to the point of no return.”
According to State Water Board – Division of Drinking Water Monterey District Engineer Jonathan Weininger, since the CZU Complex, the board has also had issues communicating with Big Basin. Both in June and October, the water company did not notify the board of water shutoffs and implemented a boil water notice without regulatory approval, Weininger told the Sentinel.
As concerns from residents mounted this fall, officials began to take more serious action.
The company was hit with a third citation on Oct. 28 for failing to comply with deadlines, to the tune of $21,000. Just days later on Nov. 3, the board issued a fourth citation to the company for failing to thoroughly sample water supplies for contamination.
Big Basin also didn’t meet at least four of eight regulatory deadlines set by the board in the first citation, sent out in April, to improve water quality and reliability, the Sentinel found.
For his part, Moore told the Sentinel in November he couldn’t afford to make upgrades required by the state largely because of lower-than-average water rates.
Solutions on horizon
After months of negotiations and conversations, in October the Moores agreed to work with the San Lorenzo Valley Water District in an effort to merge the two supplies and customer bases.
District Board Director Bob Fultz commended Big Basin owners for coming forward to the district to formally explore such a merger in November.
“I do want to recognize the Moores for making this request, this is their life endeavor, something they’ve worked for … coming forward in this fashion, that took a lot,” Fultz said.
Rogers told the Sentinel that he’s optimistic, but that the merging process would be challenging and could take years.
“It’s going to be a uphill climb all the way, and it may not even go,” Rogers said. “This is going to need to be a group effort from the elected officials, from the state, all these people who put pressure on Big Basin water to consolidate. Now we need money.”
Jennifer Clary, California director of Clean Water Action, said she sees Big Basin as part of a larger picture issue playing out across the state: small water purveyors that rely on local water sources and operate in rural regions are struggling to keep up with increasing regulatory demands and upgrades.
In the face of climate change, and increasingly severe wildfires, those issues are inflamed.
“These are communities that have been in the same place for decades or a century or more, and so when they built them, water was affordable and plentiful,” Clary said. “As we learn more about water and how to provide safe drinking water the requirements increase.”