.High And Dry

Problems persist for Big Basin Water Company’s customers

Vito Dettore pulls his car up next to the Boulder Creek Pharmacy on a hot mountain afternoon—but he’s not here to pick up a prescription. 

Dettore, like many area residents, has stopped to stock up on clean water from a tank next door to the pharmacy.

He pulls out two gallon-size jugs from his back seat and walks up to a four-spigot fill station set up like an outdoor water bar. The service is being provided by the San Lorenzo Valley Water District free of charge. 

“My wife’s got some issues with her health, and, yeah, nobody wants to get sick from bad water, right,” Dettore said.

Big Basin Water Company (BBWC) customers have relied on this water for weeks after having their drinking water service interrupted. While some of the supply has been restored, there are ongoing concerns about the water’s quality and of recurring interruptions throughout BBWC’s service area.

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The private utility company’s ongoing infrastructure problems have created a water and sewer service crisis for its roughly 1,200 customers. Most of these customers live in the Big Basin Redwoods Subdivision, about three miles from downtown Boulder Creek. 

Earlier this year, the State Water Resources Control Board (water board) stepped in to refer BBWC to a public receiver—a court-appointed official charged with handling the company’s finances and operations–-due to its multiple violations spanning years. The issues with the company’s sewer plant forced Santa Cruz County’s Department of Community Development and Infrastructure to enact a moratorium on building permits within BBWC’s service area in April 2023. 

Since then, the company partnered with a potential buyer, Missouri-based Central States Water Services (CSWS), to help upgrade and manage the plant. CSWS then subcontracted Cypress Water Services to run operations at BBWC. Cypress is based out of Prunedale in Monterey County.

Local media outlets reported on Aug. 17 that BBWC’s sewer plant was close to being operational. New homeowners and residents rebuilding after the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire ravaged the area seemed one step closer to returning.

However, the latest struggle in the community’s ongoing fight for a safe and consistent supply of  drinking water has residents feeling like they’ve been hung out to dry.

Boiling Point 

On Aug. 8, the owners of BBWC notified the state water board’s Division of Drinking Water of a break in the main line supplying water to customers. 

BBWC distributed a precautionary boil notice and the leak was reported fixed on Aug. 9, according to the water board. Boil notices are common for customers due to the deteriorated state of the system’s supply pipes. 

Since then, water outages have persisted and on Aug. 25, Cypress Water Services issued a system-wide boil notice.  

Shandra Hunt is a customer of BBWC and member of the group Customers of Big Basin Water. The group is composed of customers and residents frustrated with the condition of the water and sewer service. They run a website and Facebook group to keep each other informed, and have been sharing photos of discolored water coming out of their kitchen faucets and bathtubs.

“I’ve got several pictures of dirty water and cloudy water. People are being told to boil it to make it safe. They’re not even willing to boil it because it looks so bad,” Hunt said.

Residents have complained that, in the past, BBWC’s boil notices did not reach everyone and some customers were still using potentially contaminated water. In response, some neighbors have taken to putting up handwritten roadside signs all over to inform the community of an active boil notice.

“Several people didn’t know for weeks that they were supposed to be boiling their water,” Hunt explained.

Vito Dettore said BBWC needs to do a better job of notifying customers so they don’t have to resort to handmade signs.

“I had to physically get out of my car, walk up and go ‘What does that say there?’” Dettore said. “You mean I’ve been drinking the water for a week?”

While some customers are getting at least limited service—even if they have to boil water—others are struggling to get any service at all.

Feeling the Pressure

The BBWC system is made up of an array of pumps that service different swaths of its service area. Residents hooked up to the China Grade pump have complained of getting low-pressure, discolored water. 

On China Grade Road, just a few miles from Highway 236, a wooden shed houses one of the pumps that helps provide water service to the neighborhood. A rudimentary line of PVC piping stretches from the pump house, across the creek below, and continues on the opposite bank towards nearby homes. 

Hunt said that this setup has been in place since the winter storms earlier this year washed out part of BBWC’s supply line. The problem now, she said, is that the pump is leaking and may be contributing to some of the water outages.

“The main concern is that it’s leaking, because they’re telling us that these leaks are what’s causing the outages. Because it doesn’t pressurize the system,” Hunt said.

According to a state water board compliance report from 2019, the existing sedimentation tank for the system is in poor condition and shows signs of corrosion. This tank, which fills all auxiliary tanks, was drained due to the leak in mid-August. 

According to Hunt, she was told by an official that, as of Sept. 7, the Jamison tank had drained again after having been supplied with water over the Labor Day weekend.

Tapped Out

Damian Moore, former BBWC operations manager and son of owner Thomas J. Moore, said on Sept. 8 that the leaks have been repaired and that the system’s water quality will be tested in the coming days.

“These leaks have been repaired, service restored and storage is recovering,” Moore said.”A system wide boil water notice was issued as it is for any and all outages in all public water systems. Testing will begin [the week of 9/11] to confirm water quality so we can lift the boil water notice.”

Moore went on to say that dating back to before the 2020 CZU fire, BBWC’s water had not tested positive for the presence of bacteria after issuing boil notices and that he expects the upcoming tests to come back clean as well.

The CZU fire severely damaged BBWC’s infrastructure, accelerating the deterioration of the aging system.

According to a previous statement Thomas J. Moore made to the state water board, upgrading the drinking water distribution system would cost an estimated $2,877,900.00. 

Public documents show that BBWC received $497.924.29 from its insurer for damages from the fire. Damian Moore said that the money received has already been used up for various repairs to tanks, pipes and valves within the company’s distribution system. 

Moore also emphasized that the company was “making no money during the and after the evacuation period [for the CZU fire]” and that it had to rebuild its customer base since. 

In December of 2022, BBWC requested a 55.59% water rate increase to customers to offset its lack of profit.

Water Rescue

On July 10 2023, the state water board’s Division of Drinking Water filed a lawsuit in Santa Cruz County Superior Court to bring BBWC into a public receivership. A court-appointed receiver would then manage BBWC until its drinking water and sewer systems are in compliance with state water quality regulations. 

At this time, Central States Water Resources is intending to purchase BBWC, pending approval from state entities. 

According to the water board, a new owner must receive approval from both its Division of Drinking Water and the California Public Utilities Commission. They must also demonstrate the “technical, managerial and financial capacity to sustainably own and operate a drinking water system.”

The next hearing for the receivership lawsuit is scheduled for Sept. 29 at the Santa Cruz County Courthouse.

The receivership process may take months—or years—and there is no interim solution in place for the customers’ water woes at this time.

“[Customers] were left literally high and dry, not knowing what to do. So I think that’s the summary of the entire thing,” Hunt said.

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