Big Basin Water Co. property in Boulder Creek

Big Basin Water Co. lost its water treatment facility, main office, several buildings and distribution facilities during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in 2020. (Brian Phan — Santa Cruz Local)

BOULDER CREEK >>Big Basin Water Co. customers likely will see improved water quality with San Lorenzo Valley Water District’s expected acquisition of the Big Basin system, but they’ll have to wait. It will take at least 18 months for the two systems to merge, and improvements are likely to take two to three years after that, water officials said this week.

The expected merger is important to customers of Big Basin Water Co. near Boulder Creek because of major water system damage during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in 2020. It has led to boil-water advisories for drinking and washing as recently as October. Many Big Basin customers have installed home water filters. 

A merger would mean that the San Lorenzo Valley water system would be integrated into Big Basin, and Big Basin customers would have better water service and reliability, water officials said.

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Rick Rogers, district manager of San Lorenzo Valley Water, said the California Public Utilities Commission and Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission could take 18 months to three years to approve the merger. 

“It is in the very early stages,” Rogers said this week. “We are working together right now,” he said of the two water districts. “We’re developing agreements and putting together all the background information to move forward.”

A map of the San Lorenzo Valley Water District

A map shows the rough boundary of San Lorenzo Valley Water District in Felton, Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek and other areas. The system encircles an area where Big Basin Water Co. provides water around Highway 236. (San Lorenzo Valley Water District)

In November, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District Board of Directors voted unanimously to examine a merger with Big Basin Water. Jim Moore, manager of Big Basin Water, said last week that his company is moving forward as well.

Moore said that trying to fix Big Basin’s infrastructure has been a big task. The firm lost its water treatment facility, main office, several buildings and distribution facilities during the CZU Fire.

It’s been not easy,” Moore said. The problem is that there’s just my son and myself and it’s a lot of work.”

A wooded area in Boulder Creek damaged by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire is fenced off in early 2021.

Some Big Basin Water Co. equipment off Highway 236 near Boulder Creek was fenced off in early 2021. Much of the water company’s infrastructure was damaged in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in 2020. (Stephen Baxter — Santa Cruz Local file) 

San Lorenzo Valley Water has about 7,900 customers. Big Basin serves about 500 customers’ homes on Highway 236 and areas northwest of downtown Boulder Creek.

“It’s critical that San Lorenzo Valley Water District take in the 500 water customers of Big Basin for reliable, consistent water,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson. “It will probably cost those people in Big Basin more, but I think that’s expected, if not anticipated.”

McPherson represents District 5, which includes the San Lorenzo Valley. Both water companies serve his constituents. “It is the way to solve the water concerns in the Big Basin Water Company,” McPherson said.

Many of Big Basin’s water customers have had to make costly changes since the CZU Fire. 

Customers’ water problems

Harold Moorhead and his wife Christine Charter Moorhead are San Lorenzo Valley Water customers on Garden Lane near Boulder Creek. They installed a roughly $2,100 water filter system because of the poor water quality from their taps after the fire.

Harold Moorhead of Boulder Creek holds up a home water filter he changed recently. Many water customers have installed filters because of poor water quality after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in 2020. (Christine Charter Moorhead)

“I changed the filters yesterday. I couldn’t believe it,” Harold Moorhead said Monday. “There are people out there drinking that water.”

Because he has had cancer and a stem cell transplant, he said he’s trying to be careful with water in his home. He recommended that his neighbors also install home water filters.

“You don’t have to get the most expensive whole house filter that they make,” Moorhead said, “depending on how super clean you want your water.”

San Lorenzo Valley Water District leaders said that its basic tap water meets all state and federal drinking water standards and that it goes through more tests than bottled water.

“Our water is now back to pre-fire quality,” said Rogers, the district manager of San Lorenzo Valley Water. Rogers said he did not necessarily recommend home water filters. “If you had some type of medical condition and your doctor recommended something, definitely,” Rogers said.

In the next few years, the water quality is expected to improve and rates are likely to rise for Big Basin customers. After the merger, state grants could help rebuild Big Basin’s water system, San Lorenzo Valley Water leaders said.

“When the merger is done, the folks in Big Basin will have a top-notch water system with a reliable water supply and water quality,” Rogers said.  “It’ll have a professionally trained staff to operate their water system.”

Water rate changes

Big Basin customers now have lower water rates than some other water customers in Santa Cruz County. If the merger is finalized, rates are expected to rise for Big Basin customers but not for San Lorenzo Valley Water customers due to the merger, San Lorenzo Valley water leaders said. 

Rogers, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District manager, said Big Basin’s less expensive water “also comes with the lack of maintenance and capital improvements.” He said, “There hasn’t been money to perform upgrades or do ongoing maintenance.” Rogers added, “These folks [Big Basin Water Co.] need the support of the community.”

Water rates vary among some major providers in Santa Cruz County. (City of Santa Cruz)

How a merger could work

The merger has two parts. 

  • The Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission will consider whether to approve the union of the two water companies. 
  • Then, the two water districts combine their water systems’ pipes and other infrastructure. 

“In the beginning, and for the foreseeable future, nothing is going to change except for who is going to bill,” said Moore, of Big Basin Water. “I am not going anywhere.”

The expected merger comes on the heels of a separate merger attempt between San Lorenzo Valley Water District and Scotts Valley Water District in 2020. Several San Lorenzo Valley Water customers said they didn’t want the change. 

The San Lorenzo Valley Water Board of Directors decided not to pursue that merger in May 2021.

Correction: The Moorheads are San Lorenzo Valley Water customers. A previous version of this story stated that they were customers of another water company.

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Brian Phan is an intern for Santa Cruz Local and a master's student in UC Santa Cruz's science communication program. Brian has written for the Monterey Herald.