BOULDER CREEK — Bright red fire trucks were replaced by folding chairs and a small speaker system at the Boulder Creek Fire Department Monday as more than a hundred people gathered to hear details about a proposed rate increase for Big Basin Water Co. customers.
The meeting was attended by Jim Moore, who privately owns the company alongside his wife Shirley and their son Damian, who is the chief operator of the business providing water to 547 customers in Boulder Creek.
The California Public Utilities Commission was the host, as it has the authority to approve, partially approve or deny the requested increase. But it was the father-son duo who answered most of the public’s questions, which were shared via small index cards and often succeeded by spontaneous follow-up questions shouted from the live audience.
“Ideally, this would put us in a position to repair … all of the trouble in the system and actually be able to operate the water company,” said Jim Moore of the potential increase, which would be the company’s first since 2014. “It’s going to take at least a year or more to get in a position to do all that’s necessary, but to begin with we need to have higher rates so that we can afford to do it.”
The proposed increase would roll out over two years, with the current rate of $3.73 for all water delivered per 100 cubic feet – the unit of measure on Big Basin bills – increasing to $4.67 this year and then escalating to $5.60 in 2024. There are about 748 gallons in 100 cubic feet of water. The increase as proposed would raise $271,613 in additional general rate revenues.
A 2018 sanitary survey report from the state’s Water Resources Control Board identified several deficiencies – including water source capacity – in Big Basin’s water system and estimated it would cost $2.87 million to bring it back into compliance.
In a February letter to Big Basin’s ownership, control board attorney Laura Mooney wrote that the company had still not addressed its source capacity issue and the overall total to get back into compliance had likely “increased substantially” after the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire destroyed much of its infrastructure and left it with only one water source.
Damian Moore said the added revenue would help Big Basin hire additional staff and secure a larger loan for the needed repairs.
“We are going to address system deficiencies first prioritizing backup power, a second source and getting that infrastructure back in place so our neighbors can rebuild their homes,” he said, adding that he’d devised an order of operations detailing how repairs would unfold.
“Is that something you can share with everybody?” replied community member Shandra Hunt from the audience.
Damian Moore said he doesn’t have a plan in writing but pledged to provide one should the rate increase go through.
He also said the company has pursued grants for repairs from the state and other sources, but “it’s not very common for a for-profit water company to receive grant money.”
Numbers aside, some Big Basin customers voiced frustrations with the company’s spotty messaging.
“It’s not about the increase, OK, I think a lot of us support that. It’s a lack of communication through all these years,” said Marjorie Hawkins who has been a Big Basin customer since 2000. “There have been people drinking the water and they hear about the boil order afterwards.”
The Sentinel has documented customers that have complained for years about erratic water service and inconsistent communication when it comes to important issues such as boil orders and water outages.
Damian Moore blamed the delays partially on state processes that require him to file a report before distributing the notices. He said his team typically goes door to door to share them, but was collecting emails from event attendees to try to form a mailing list.
Arlene and Jim LaBorde have been Big Basin Water customers for almost 40 years and affectionately call Moore “Jim the water man.”
“He’s always serviced us well,” said Jim LaBorde, though he acknowledges others have had a different experience.
Arlene LaBorde agreed but came away from the meeting with a recognition that the company needed to make some changes.
“I’d like to see an operational plan,” she said, “and the communication needs to be better. I find that through the people here.”
Still, state-level authorities have grown tired of Big Basin’s lack of action. The Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water announced in late February that it plans to pursue a receivership for the company because it is failing to provide water “that is pure, wholesome, potable, and does not endanger the health of its consumers.”
Pending approval from a judge, the action would appoint a receiver to take possession of the company with the intention of bringing it back into compliance, though ownership would not change. Local and state leaders have also been supportive of consolidation with the neighboring public utility San Lorenzo Water District, but talks halted after the district estimated it would cost $40 million to modernize Big Basin’s system.
Damian said during the meeting that Big Basin is also in talks with a private company interested in purchasing their family business.
“We will hopefully be able to share information about that publicly soon, we’re just not quite at that point,” he said.
Wilson Tsai, the state utilities commission representative that facilitated the meeting, announced that he would extend the public comment period on the rate increase to April 24 and the commission aimed to make a decision by June.
To submit comments
What: Big Basin Water Co. proposed rate increase.
When: By April 24
How: A letter to the California Public Utilities Commission and Big Basin Water Co. Letters should reference “Big Basin Water Company, AL 83-W 2023 General Rate Case.”
California Public Utilities Commission, Water Division at 505 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102.
Big Basin Water Co. at P.O. Box 197, Boulder Creek, CA 95006, ATTN: Jim Moore.