BOULDER CREEK — Slowly but surely, the San Lorenzo Valley community is rebuilding itself after the CZU Lightning Complex fire. Its water district is no exception.
The San Lorenzo Valley Water District lost all of its water intake infrastructure at the Lyon Water Treatment Plant in Boulder Creek, built in 1994 with the purpose of treating surface water coming from many streams on the Empire Grade mountain. About 50% of the water stored at the plant was lost as well. All of the 1,600 acres of the watershed were affected by the wildfire.
“It is an impact, so we are bringing water up from Ben Lomond when normally the water would be produced here,” District Manager Rick Rogers said Wednesday when he took local media members on an official tour of the area that still shows signs of scorched earth.
Rogers said that the loss of approximately 7 miles of above-ground pipeline made of high-density polyethylene and damage to all three on-site water tanks cost the district $20 million.
“The pipe melted and burned as the fire came through,” Rogers said. “We worked with our consultants to track the fire with heat maps … We were able to track it almost hourly as it neared our facilities … That gave us the ability to shut down the treatment plant so no contamination came in.”
Currently, the district is supplementing its surface water in Boulder Creek with well water. Rogers said he hopes to get the surface water intake and storage back online in the next three years.
For the time being, the district has spent about $250,000 on what it is calling a “constructability survey.” This partnership with San Mateo-based Freyer & Laureta Inc. will give a look into what the best option in new water intake infrastructure would be for the water district.
“(We) will see what the best type of today’s engineering (is) to put the pipe back,” Rogers said. “Over the next few months, we will hopefully come up with some construction techniques, either bury the pipeline or replace it with non-flammable material to harden it from future fires.”
Once there are determinations made from the survey, there will be an estimated six-month effort to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get the new infrastructure approved. Rogers and his team expect it to go off without a hitch, as FEMA has been closely involved since the fire started. The process is slow, but staff members are making the best of things by using the time to write plans and specifications to go out to bid.
“Some of this, regardless of FEMA (approving) it or not, the district will be moving ahead and making repairs,” Rogers said, adding that a low-interest loan has been taken out to cover initial construction costs.
The water district is confident that 75% of the cost, or $15 million, will be covered by the federal government, while the district will have to come up with 25% or approximately $5 million. Rogers said the district intends on introducing a fire-related surcharge of about $5 a month per connection to help raise the money in the next five years.
Currently, the Proposition 218 process to give customers the chance to review or protest the idea is underway. After the required 45 days, this will be followed by a public hearing and the presumed adoption of the surcharge.
“So far (input) has been positive but always with some type of rate increase there are folks that want more information and have concerns. There are a lot of low-income people and with COVID, there are a lot of folks that are still not back in the workforce so it is a concern and we understand that, that’s for sure,” Rogers said.
The last time that water infrastructure intake was built, it was a 10-year process, Rogers recounted. The topography of the area required installation to be done by helicopters and hand crews.
“You’re basically crossing the Ben Lomond Mountain, and it’s no different than taking a hike at Big Basin State Park. It’s a narrow trail, springs all over, stream crossings, steep redwood tree forests… the only access in is to walk,” Rogers said. “We flew the materials in and made drops in the forests and then crews walked in every morning and walked out every night.”
Today, at the seat of the Empire Grade, only one of the district’s water filtering system and one of its tanks — power washed, sanitized and tested thoroughly before it was brought back from the fire — are actively hosting the water district’s supply.
This is unusual, Rogers admitted, as he said that each filtering system can handle 350 gallons of water per minute and it sounds like there is “water screaming through” the inside of the plant.
The plant’s Windows-based iFIX engineering software automation system is accessed remotely by employees to monitor facilities and process data while the district’s on-site, Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program certified lab is used in-person to test 15 to 20 samples per week for coliform bacteria and chlorine residual.
“We have 24/7 capability of testing these samples … we have as quick of a turnaround as possible, so once we get those negative samples back then we get our people back their water,” Rogers said. “It’s huge to restore drinkable water service back.”
The speed that the lab provides will come in handy again this fire season, which chemists such as Water Treatment & System Supervisor Nate Gillespie are nervous can mean recontamination of water affected last year.
“Water distribution networks are very dynamic systems. You can’t always predict flows so we are seeing recontamination in some areas,” Gillespie said, adding the Paradise fire zone as an example of where extended contamination has been an issue.
Between August and October of 2020, “Do not drink, do not boil” advisories were in place across the valley for different periods of time when Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) testing revealed benzene in the water in the Riverside Grove neighborhood. One standout sample had a detected 20 parts per billion when the maximum contaminant level for the state is one part per billion.
“SLV crews flushed mainlines to flush out any contamination. Once lines were flushed we re-tested, and then we re-tested again until we had no shadow of a doubt that contamination was not present,” Gillespie said.
Though neither benzene nor other VOCs have been detected since mid-September, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District has instituted a long-term VOC monitoring program where all regular sites are tested monthly at least through December 2022, Gillespie said.
In addition to regular testing, hazmat operations have already taken place, as EPA bins were brought in to remove possible contaminants, such as batteries, from the riparian corridor. Additionally, according to Gillespie, scientists have learned that connections left open to homes burned down last year can be a potential source of contamination; those connections have since been closed off to make sure that does not happen.
“We’ve been very transparent through this whole process. Any time we found contamination, we have let the customers know right away. Our data doesn’t lie,” Gillespie said. “It’s our job to serve safe drinking water and we all take that very seriously.”