In 2020, Big Basin Water Company (BBWC) suffered catastrophic losses to its infrastructure due to the CZU August Lightning Complex Fire, which ripped through the housing of the water company and left it completely devastated, resulting in a 100% loss of water for the utility’s 1,120 customers.
Now, years later, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson is working with state regulators as they move toward pursuing receivership for Big Basin Water. Receivership is a court-appointed solution for a utility or agency and occurs when the business has secured debt that they are unable to pay; a receiver is appointed to sell the assets and pay the bills.
“After years of documenting BBWC’s history of unreliability and poor communication, the state Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water has taken new action that I hope will help us collectively chart a better future for BBWC’s customers,” McPherson said. “The agency’s Office of Enforcement has begun the process of pursuing receivership of the company following numerous violations that have been largely ignored by BBWC despite carrying the potential for at least $2.9 million in fines.”
That amount of money does not include additional violations cited in January 2023.
The Office of Enforcement issued a letter to the utility that read in part, “BBWC must ensure a reliable and adequate supply of water at all times that is pure, wholesome, potable and does not endanger the health of its consumers. 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.”
The letter further outlined deficiencies in the utility’s operation, including its failure to “secure adequate backup power for its system and its failure to repair and replace storage and distribution facilities.”
In addition, the letter cited the incompetence of the utility to respond adequately to PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs in October 2019 due to exacerbated fire danger within the community.
“Despite ample notice of the planned power outage, BBWC was unable to adequately respond and experienced a water outage on October 28 and 29, 2019, which required BBWC to issue a boil water notice to affected customers. BBWC thereafter did not comply with the Division’s repeated requests that BBWC provide a power outage response plan to eliminate the recurrence of the problem,” the letter read.
The lack of managerial capacity and the utility’s inability to adequately staff its operations further led to the state’s pursuit of receivership, as well. Despite the dark days behind BBWC, McPherson is optimistic about the future.
“We should see this as real progress toward a better future for Big Basin Water customers. We don’t know exactly how long the process might take, but we are all hoping to see a receiver in place as soon as possible,” McPherson said. “I expect the state will release more details soon about the process and work to address the community’s questions. The biggest issue we have is funding, and there is state money available for consolidation with public entities. So, I’m focused on supporting that path.”
In 2022, there was talk of a possible merger between San Lorenzo Valley Water District and BBWC, but that idea was never realized; now, a receivership is the only path forward for the strained agency.
BBWC has requested its first general rate increase since 2014 through the state Public Utilities Commission, which has announced a hearing to take public input on Monday, April 3, at 6pm at the Boulder Creek Golf and Country Club, 16901 Big Basin Highway.
To inquire about the receivership process, contact the Water Resources Control Board at 831-655-6939 or [email protected]. As always, community members can contact Supervisor McPherson’s office at 831-454-2200 or [email protected].