Quick Take:

Big Basin Water Company, a private utility in Boulder Creek, had been plagued by problems for years before a prospective new owner abruptly backed out of a deal to purchase the company late last month. Big Basin’s court-appointed receiver told a packed community meeting Thursday that it is working to provide consistent drinking water, secure funding for essential repairs and find a potential buyer for the troubled utility.

A mess for years, Big Basin Water Company, the private water utility providing drinking and wastewater service to nearly 1,200 people in Boulder Creek, has faced particularly acute challenges over the past month. And while it is still a mess, customers were told Thursday that it is at least a mess now on a positive trajectory.

Under the fluorescent lights of Boulder Creek’s firehouse garage, attorney Nick Jaber stood before a packed town-hall audience of water customers in the mountain community and outlined how his firm, Irvine-based Silver & Wright LLP, would try to save Big Basin Water Company.

After years of deferred maintenance, outages and mismanagement by the utility’s former owners — Jim and Shirley Moore — a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge on Sept. 29 relieved the Moores of their control over the utility’s drinking-water operation and put it in the hands of an outside law firm.

Even for a utility known for inconsistent service in supplying clean drinking water to customers, the past two weeks have been distinctly turbulent. Silver & Wright LLP was tapped by the court to become the utility’s receiver — essentially a conservator but for a business — which meant taking over decision-making for Big Basin, with the goal of turning it around and making it viable for a sale to new, more adept owners. Months before Silver & Wright formally took over, the Moores worked out an agreement with Missouri-based Central States Water Resources to purchase the utility. That deal felt promising until Oct. 20, when Central States Water Resources abruptly backed out of the agreement.

Central States’ decision to duck out sent the law firm, and state and local officials, into a frenzy, as they had to suddenly run a water system they had no funding to maintain. Loans came quickly from the county (about $40,000) and the state (about $240,000); Jaber hired a delivery service to truck clean drinking water into town to serve people in higher elevations who were suddenly without water due to issues at the well; and Jaber helped broker a deal with the San Lorenzo Valley Water District so Big Basin Water Company could tie into its pipes and cover the water shortfall.

“The vast majority of Big Basin’s drinking water customers right now are getting consistent drinking water and are not under a boil-water notice,” Jaber told Lookout after the town hall. Now, he said, the utility needs to find money to fund general operations and the most basic infrastructure repairs for at least the next six months. Jaber said without that funding, the water utility could fail.

Nick Jaber, lead attorney from Silver & Wright LLP.
Nick Jaber, lead attorney from Silver & Wright LLP. Credit: Christopher Neely / Lookout Santa Cruz

For a long time, Big Basin Water Company relied on surface water from the San Lorenzo River watershed as its main source, with a mixture of wells as insurance. Damaged infrastructure from a combination of deferred maintenance and the 2020 CZU fire has left the utility with only one source of water: a well known as Well #4, which should be supplying 300 gallons per minute, but has lately run at about 103 gallons per minute, a rapid decline officials are working to figure out. Jaber said under existing financial constraints, the cost of investing in a new water source makes it unrealistic, meaning the utility will have to figure out how to make Well #4 work.

Jaber said his firm is looking to open up conversations with the neighboring San Lorenzo Valley Water District, or San Jose Water to the north, as potential buyers. However, he said he has heard that the Big Basin system could require $40 million of infrastructure maintenance in order for the San Lorenzo Valley Water District to purchase the system.

For some customers, like Roger Wapner, who has lived in Boulder Creek since 1993, the water system’s health is urgent. Wapner is near completion of rebuilding his home after it burned in the CZU fire. While the property is hooked up to the water system and getting some running water, there is not enough pressure for the home’s sprinkler system, which Wapner said is a legal necessity after the fire.

“We won’t be able to move into our house without enough water pressure,” Wapner said.

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Over the past decade, Christopher Neely has built a diverse journalism résumé, spanning from the East Coast to Texas and, most recently, California’s Central Coast.Chris reported from Capitol Hill...