| California utility braces for next wildfire while recovering from last
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California utility braces for next wildfire while recovering from last

Late last summer, after a wildfire forced residents in California’s San Lorenzo Valley to evacuate, utility crews returned to find a devastated water system: melted pipelines, charred infrastructure and years and years of repair work ahead of them. 

A portion of pipe melted in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. By the time the CZU Lightning Complex Fire was extinguished, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD) had sustained $20 million in damage – equal to its annual budget before the fire – to raw water supply lines and storage tanks, as well as treatment systems, pumps, water quality monitoring equipment and long-distance transmission pipelines. (Pictured right, a portion of pipe melted in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire) 

“It was heartbreaking,” said Carly Blanchard, SLVWD environmental planner. “I don’t think anyone thought it would be that damaging.”

To help cover these massive, unexpected costs, SLVWD is turning to Federal Emergency Management Agency aid and proposing a wildfire recovery surcharge to customer bills. Grants are also crucial, and a recent $200,000 award from the California State Coastal Conservancy to clear vegetation and fire fuels near drinking water infrastructure will help tremendously, Blanchard said, especially as this summer’s hot, dry conditions signal an even worse wildfire season ahead. 

SLVWD is located in the mountains of Santa Cruz County, about 70 miles south of San Francisco. The 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire burned more than 85,000 acres through two counties in the area. The fire’s destruction was unexpected; typically, lightning-caused fires in redwood forests smolder and move slowly, Blanchard said, but this one burned hot and fast.   

Carly BlanchardAll 35,000 residents were ordered to leave. Before people fled, many put sprinklers on their roofs to help save their homes, nearly draining the potable water supply, she said. 

“All hands were on deck, all staff were working 24 hours a day, especially everyone on the operations crew,” said Blanchard (pictured left). “They worked all day and all night turning off sprinklers and looking for active leaks.”

The fire melted or damaged seven miles of pipeline, as well as 1,600 of 2,000 acres of watershed land SLVWD owns.

“We lost pretty much our whole northern intake system,” Blanchard said. 

Before the CZU fire, SLVWD used intake structures to move surface water from streams and rivers to treatment plants. With so much destroyed, SLVWD now is relying more heavily on its groundwater sources. 

“This is going to be a long-term financial issue for us,” she said. “We’re trying to pursue as many grants as we can.”

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire The water district was one of 33 projects statewide that received the grant from the California State Coastal Conservancy, which earmarked $10.8 million to help increase the resilience of coastal forests and open space to wildfires. 

SLVWD started a fuel reduction and vegetation management plan in early 2020, just before the fire hit. Now officials have a plan in place and will use it to target areas that need defensible space so that next time a wildfire hits, it won’t cause as much harm. 

“It’s going to be hard to complete all these projects, but this gives us a good place to start,” Blanchard said, adding that crews will begin clearing vegetation by the end of July.

SLVWD learned plenty about resiliency planning from that fire, she added. Clear communication with customers was crucial, especially when residents had to adhere to a temporary “Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” notice after the fire. Above all, the utility learned the importance of preparing for even the most unlikely disasters.  

“It’s really important to think forward and not think you’re immune to certain disasters,” Blanchard said. “Just because you haven’t seen it in the past 20, 30, 40 years doesn’t mean it can’t happen.” (Photos courtesy of SLVWD)