BOULDER CREEK (KPIX) -- A private water company in the Santa Cruz Mountains that residents are concerned has exposed them to unsafe drinking water in the last year has been fined $21,000 by the California State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water.
"When the water system repeatedly fails to do the things that we have directed them to do, when they repeatedly fail to communicate with us or their customers, then we have to explore punitive options," said the division's North Coastal Section chief Stefan Cajina.
For the last year, nearly 500 of Big Basin Water Company's customers have dealt with repeated water outages and boil advisories. During an outage, outside contaminants can make their way into a water system and boil advisories are typically issued until the utility company's tests show the water is safe to drink again.
Residents have complained that, at times, they have received boil-advisory notifications more than 24 hours after water service has already resumed.
Some residents told KPIX they've resorted to purchasing expensive filtration systems because they don't trust the water even when a boil advisory is lifted.
For some who can't afford a filtration system, the delay in notification may be too late.
"We're pretty well covered even when there's a boil-water notice but the majority of people around here, they don't have that," said Michael Parks.
He installed a water filtration system more than a year ago.
Residents said they've tried to get answers from Big Basin Water Company's owner, Jim Moore, and his company employees but to no avail. Many have resorted to communicating among each other about outages and boil advisories on Nextdoor.com.
Even Cajina admitted it's been difficult to get hold of Moore during outages, including within the 24-hour time frame that water companies are given to alert customers when their water isn't safe to drink.
"Sometimes water systems do not do a great job at communication and sometimes it's difficult even for us to get a hold of them in that time frame and that has certainly been the case with Big Basin," Cajina said.
He said their agency only recently became aware of the enormity of the issues when residents began voicing their concerns.
"I don't think anybody feels really safe," said Big Basin Water Company customer Daniela Apostola.
She told KPIX that she has repeatedly tried to contact Moore through phone and e-mail. She was among the residents who installed a filtration system that she said cost her about $3,000.
"When I change the filters on the system they look horrible," said Apostol. "One of the filters was black."
Big Basin Water Company's aging and deteriorating system has become so unreliable that the Parks fill their bathtub with water so they can simply flush their toilet during the next outage.
The couple said that Moore lives just two miles away from them in Boulder Creek but the residents have said they can't reach him or anyone from his company to get answers.
"Transparency and accountability are key in lots of things but especially in something that's a necessity of life," Jennifer Parks said.
"It's unusual, this has been a particularly bad situation," Cajina said about the company's lack of communication.
In documents provided by the Division of Drinking Water, inspectors found deficiencies during sanitary surveys at Big Basin Water Company in 2016 and 2018, including a rodent problem in the treatment plant building that the company tried to resolve by keeping cats in the structure.
The upgrades, the company had estimated, would cost them nearly $3 million.
Cajina said slapping water companies with fines is always their last resort because they would rather the companies use that money on maintenance and repairs. He said they had no choice but to fine Big Basin Water Company after Moore repeatedly failed to come to compliance and make the upgrades requested by the state.
Late last month, Moore was fined $21,000. The fine could be waived if Moore sends the state a plan for corrective actions by Jan. 31, 2022.
Among the state requests is repairing part of Big Basin Water Company's infrastructure that burned down during last year's CZU Complex Fire.
Residents believe the money to make those repairs has only made it more difficult for Moore to keep up with the state's demands for upgrades and regular maintenance, which they believe are causing the recent outages.
"They don't have enough revenue," said Santa Cruz County communications manager Jason Hoppin. "They're not large enough to kind of insulate themselves from an event like the CZU Fire."
Now Big Basin Water Company may have a lifeline from the San Lorenzo Valley Water District.
In the district's public meeting earlier this month, the board voted unanimously to consider consolidating with the struggling company.
Moore was applauded in the meeting for making the request to merge.
While the county or state have no responsibility in the merger, Hoppins and Cajina have said they would help the parties look for financial help, including applying for grant money, to make the consolidation happen.
San Lorenzo has already been helping Big Basin make emergency repairs.
"Obviously, San Lorenzo Water District has been acting as a good neighbor and helping where it can," said Cajina. "I recognize it's frustrating and scary for the folks that live there but we are working hard on this."
However, San Lorenzo Valley Water District manager Rick Rogers, questioned during the public meeting whether the state's response is actually helping.
"I've worked alongside Jim Moore probably for about 40 years," Rogers said. "The state is pushing the small agency out of business so to speak and I think he's done a pretty incredible job over the years."
KPIX reporter Maria Cid Medina e-mailed Moore more than a week ago but he has yet to respond. Cid Medina also tried to call Moore at his water company, however, she was connected to a third party answering service that residents have spoken to during outages.
"The answering service is like us, they know nothing," Apostol said.
Many Big Basin Water Company customers want to know where their money has gone all these years as the water system continues to show signs of aging.
Now they wait for a resolution with San Lorenzo Valley Water Company but they said the merger could take at least 18 months.
"We think the law needs to be changed, we think that utility companies -- private or not -- should be held to higher standards, to be transparent," Apostol said. "It breaks my heart to think that someone would have a baby to raise around here with this water."
This is the second in a two-part series. Read Part One
for more features.