The Big Basin Woods Subdivision residents have been living without proper drinking water and sanitation for almost three years. The small unincorporated enclave north of Boulder Creek has been battling with Big Basin Water Company, the area’s private utility provider, to get basic service.
California’s State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) has stepped in to refer the Big Basin Water Company (BBWC) into a public receivership to help bring its facilities into compliance and provide adequate services to a community in dire need.
Despite ongoing efforts to bring BBWC into compliance, residents are being held hostage by the bureaucratic process and left with unsafe water access. The potentially lengthy process may take months or even years to resolve this complicated matter. Residents here, however, need immediate solutions to an issue they say is a matter of “basic human rights.”
HISTORY OF TURMOIL
In August 2020, the CZU Complex Lightning fire tore through the Santa Cruz Mountains, scorching over 86,000 acres and costing North County an estimated $2.6 billion in damages. BBWC’s facilities were severely damaged as a result. Its wastewater treatment plant became inoperable while losing 100% of its water distribution capacity.
Since then, the hundreds of customers relying on BBWC for clean drinking water and the dozens connected to their sewer service have been struggling to get reliable, safe drinking water and sanitation.
Residents have complained about frequent drinking water outages, some lasting up to two weeks. Loss of water pressure, discolored water and boil notices without adequate and timely communication on the part of BBWC have also been recurring problems.
State officials have warned BBWC for years about non-compliance with drinking water standards.
A letter from the SWRCB to BBWC owner Thomas J. Moore dated Feb. 28, 2023, detailed the company’s ongoing violations of the California Safe Drinking Water Act.
“BBWC is not currently satisfying that obligation as it does not have the technical, managerial and financial capacity to operate a public water system, and it is unresponsive to the rules and orders of the Division [Of Drinking Water],” stated the letter.
Similarly, the sanitation side of Moore’s company is falling short of state standards.
BBWC’s wastewater treatment plant on Jamison Creek Road has been without power since being damaged during the CZU fires in 2020. In Aug. 2022, state officials learned that “raw sewage was overflowing the wastewater basins and spilling onto the ground,” according to a letter sent by the SWRCB to residents.
An April 2023 report by the SWRCB notes that at least six homes have had raw sewage backing up into their toilets and bathtubs since August 2022. There are also allegations from residents that the raw sewage has made its way into local waterways, including Boulder Creek.
Due to the severe violations by BBWC’s wastewater treatment facilities, the SWRCB called on Santa Cruz County’s Department of Community Development and Infrastructure to enact a moratorium on building permits within BBWC’s sewer service area.
In a letter dated April 23, 2023, the county notified residents that it “will cease issuing pre-clearance approvals, building permits and certificates of occupancy for projects within the Big Basin sewer service area. “
Homeowners are now caught in the middle. Some residents here are in the final stretch of rebuilding homes after the devastation of the CZU fire. Others have bought property in the area since the fires and are just now being made aware of the convoluted mess involving BBWC.
Samuel Singer and his wife, Rebecca McKay, purchased a home in the Big Basin Subdivision in July 2022. Singer contacted the owner, who reassured them that the company could service their property. As part of moving in, they were required to obtain a will-serve letter from BBWC.
“The county told us that all we needed to get was a will-serve letter from the company, and we did,” Singer says. “We reached out to the owners [of BBWC] and said we were interested in buying this property for which you provide utilities. They said, ‘No problem.’”
Singer says they were granted building permits to remodel in January of 2023 and had plans to move into their dwelling by early summer. They were unaware of any issues with BBWC until they received the April 23 letter from the county. Now they are in limbo, paying a mortgage on their property and renting a place in Palo Alto.
Singer and Mckay hope that the public receivership the SWRCB is pushing for will hold BBWC to account.
“They haven’t been held accountable until now that the Water Board is stepping in and passing the matter onto the Attorney General. It probably should have happened years ago, but the fires are really what did this utility company in,” Singer says.
Big Basin Water Company has been operating without adequate permits or insurance for a decade, and state regulators have attempted to bring the company into compliance since 2018. Despite these efforts, BBWC’s owner Thomas J. Moore has been unable to get the company into compliance and to adequately operate as a public utilities provider.
Moore contends that a major issue precluding BBWC from complying with state regulations is the huge costs that upgrading the outdated system would incur. Fixing problems with their drinking water distribution system alone would cost an estimated $2,877,900.00, according to BBWC. In December of 2022, BBWC requested a 55.59% water rate increase to customers to offset their lack of profit.
The SWRCB is now referring the matter to the California Attorney General so that a court-appointed receiver can run BBWC until it complies with water quality rules.
Another possible solution is selling BBWC to a private buyer with the capital to make the necessary improvements to provide adequate service to residents. However, homeowners feel this would let Moore off the hook and not be held accountable for years of mismanagement.
“[BBWC] would get to walk away with whatever they get from the sale, and they get to wash their hands of it. And really, that means they’re not held accountable at all. So we don’t want that to happen,” Singer says.
Residents here are frustrated with Moore and BBWC and feel neglected by county officials. They perceive a lack of urgency for a temporary solution to get people into their homes or provide safe water and sanitation. Some have decided to take matters into their own hands.
RESIDENTS TRY SOLUTIONS
Christopher Bradford has been a resident of the Big Basin Subdivision for eight years. He has been outspoken about what he considers disastrous for the entire neighborhood.
Bradford claims that local government officials have neglected their constituents in this part of the county and that it has failed to hold BBWC accountable. “We’re being taxed but not represented,” he says.
The area is represented in local government by 5th District Supervisor Bruce McPherson. Now a vocal supporter of receivership for BBWC, Mcpherson has in the past supported a possible merger between BBWC and the San Lorenzo Valley Water District.
Bradford, who feels that his community needs better advocacy, threw his hat in the ring for the upcoming district elections. “It has to change at the ground level,” he says.
The most pressing concern for residents is to find an immediate solution to the predicament caused by BBWC’s compromised operations. Samuel Singer claims that he has proposed solutions, such as procuring incinerating toilets for homeowners, but has been shot down by the SWRCB.
Supervisor Mcpherson has stated that he supports an interim solution, including involving the county in a possible BBWC takeover. However, because the state regulates an operation of that size, it would also take some time to move through the bureaucratic process.
“I welcome this enforcement process by the state with the hopes that it will lead to a better future for the customers of Big Basin Water. My hope, with both the wastewater division and the overall drinking water portion of the company, is to transition Big Basin to local, public ownership and establish reliable, safe service for its customers,” McPherson says.
Residents in this community feel they are paying the price for BBWC’s mismanagement and the lack of urgency by local and state officials.
Their only choice is to watch the clock and wait.“We cannot punish these [residents] for Big Basin Water Company’s failures,” Bradford says.