Over the past year, Boulder Creek received more than 71 inches of rainfall. All winter, throughout the spring and even early summer, the San Lorenzo River and its arteries of creeks, brooks and streams rushed with water. It was a historic season in many ways, but still produced only the second-wettest year over the past decade in this Santa Cruz Mountains region.
As Shandra Hunt slowly steered her blue Toyota Prius up the curves of China Grade Road in early November, neighbors were out with shovels, preparing their properties for the weekend forecast of heavy rain and the possibility of the season’s first atmospheric river.
“Everybody is out right now getting ready for the storms,” she said, waving to a shovel-wielding couple nearby. Later, as she walked through the 4-acre property that hosts her 70-year-old father and her and her husband’s tiny but productive Hillhouse Farm, she pointed out a number of dried rivulets. Soon, she said, they will be flowing.
“There’s a lot of water that comes off this mountain — you have no idea, just a ton of water,” said Hunt, who’s lived in Boulder Creek for nearly three decades. Yet, when Hunt or her father turns on the faucet each morning, they are unsure whether anything will come out. If water does flow, it often needs to be boiled before consumption. Hunt said the local utility has been poor about communication. She knows some neighbors have grown tired of guessing whether they need to burn off possible bacteria in their water and skip the process entirely.
To varying degrees over the past five years, this has been the reality for the customers of private utility Big Basin Water Company. Infrastructure problems, brown water, boil notices and outages date back prior to 2020; however, when the CZU fire wiped out critical water treatment infrastructure and torched the utility’s offices, the already tall task of fixing the system became insurmountable for the local owners, Jim and Shirley Moore.
This year, however, a series of outages and seemingly constant boil-water alerts so frustrated customers that the state took notice and, in October, forced the Moores to surrender operation of their utility to a state-appointed law firm.
For an exhausted customer base of about 1,200 people, new management sparked some hope. But the law firm, Irvine-based Silver & Wright LLP, has already run into significant challenges without easy solutions, and the customers who can are having to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to secure their own water supplies.
Once a resource taken for granted, keeping a steady flow of water in our pipes has become an increasingly delicate dance for more and more people in Santa Cruz County. Yet, while the availability of water in a drying climate has driven anxieties elsewhere in the county, the issue in Boulder Creek has been the private management of an otherwise abundant resource, and the inability to protect critical infrastructure against the growing threat of hotter wildfires.
Bradley Brown, owner of the 150-acre Big Basin Vineyards near Boulder Creek, remembers feeling a sense of pride about Big Basin Water Company before the 2020 wildfire. Brown, who’s operated the vineyard for 20 years, said he doesn’t remember the utility ever implementing water restrictions, even in drought years, because of the abundant water supply in the San Lorenzo Valley.
Yet since CZU, the utility has experienced nothing but issues. Its current affliction goes something like this: Prior to the fire, Big Basin’s main source was surface water from the San Lorenzo River watershed, thanks to a treatment plant that filtered river water into drinking water. CZU incinerated the water treatment plant, and the Moores did not have the capital to replace it, nor much of the other burned pipes and infrastructure. In the years since, the utility depended entirely on a single emergency well, known as Well #4.
However, Well #4 has hardly been dependable. Low production has meant diminished water pressure, leading to regular outages and boil notices. The issues have been particularly acute for more remote customers and those at higher elevations: Without adequate pressure, water struggles to climb and touch the farthest reaches of the system. Most recently, in August, customers suddenly lost water for more than two weeks. The outage affected at least dozens of people, though the exact number is unknown.
Leading up to a community meeting on Nov. 2, the law firm managing the utility had been using nearly $240,000 from a state grant to truck in outside water for customers. At the meeting, attorney Nick Jaber explained that Well #4 had lost about two-thirds of its productivity. “It’s degrading quickly,” he said, but no one was sure why. The system was also losing roughly 4,000 to 6,000 gallons per day due to leaks. Jaber did announce some positive news: Big Basin had reached an agreement with the nearby San Lorenzo Valley Water District. The utility could hook up to SLVWD’s system to temporarily siphon off enough water to boost supply, improve water pressure and make truck deliveries unnecessary.
Yet, by Nov. 4, the situation regressed. The infrastructure connecting Big Basin to SLVWD had failed. The utility issued another boil-water notice, affecting dozens of high-elevation customers, and returned to trucking in outside water to supply the system. Jaber told the community he expected the California Public Utilities Commission to approve a rate increase within the next three months, but that Big Basin’s system would soon need an additional cash infusion to continue operating for at least the next six months. For now, he told customers it is unclear where that money will come from.
Many customers have taken matters into their own hands at a significant price. At Big Basin Vineyards and the winery, Bradley Brown spent $8,000 rigging a new 5,000-gallon water tank on the property to create a buffer during outages, as well as thousands of dollars on a water pump.
Big Basin Vineyards dry-farms almost all of its vines, which means it does not use manufactured irrigation systems; however, cleaning the grapes and operating the winery on the property requires dependable, clean water, but that’s been difficult to come by. Brown said he’s served customers bottled water for years. During that two-week outage in August, Brown spent another $500 to truck in water “just to keep the winery operational.”
“We can’t afford to have wine production impacted,” Brown said. He’s been considering drilling his own well on the property, but the current cash flow won’t allow for an expense he estimates at up to $30,000. “It would probably be a better, long-term solution for us to have our own water source, though.”
Two people I spoke with at the Nov. 2 community meeting said they’ve spared no expense in reinforcing their own water realities. One resident told me they put a 5,000-gallon tank on their property to buffer against the outages; another said they spent $10,000 on a high-tech filtration system that uses reverse osmosis and ultraviolet treatment (similar technology is used in utility-scale filtration systems) to guard against the unpredictability of boil-water notices. Both declined to give their names. One of the residents told me, “It’s a small community, and we live in it.”
At Hillhouse Farm, Hunt installed four 250-gallon water tanks. When water is available, the tanks fill up, giving the farm and her father, who lives in a small cottage on the lot, a barrier between water outages and actually running out of water on the property. She estimated the expense between $3,000 and $5,000. Still, the outages throughout the summer cut her small farm’s production in half. In a typical year, deliveries of tomatoes, melons, greens, peppers and other produce and herbs would go out each week to about 30 customers in the San Lorenzo Valley. This year, the farm cut out the melons and much of the greens, and switched deliveries to every other week.
“There aren’t many farms that deliver to up here,” Hunt said. “We work on a pay-what-you-can model since a lot of people up here are on fixed incomes. On a frustration scale of 1 to 10, it’s been about a 30.”
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