CZU Lightning Complex Fire: Rush to restore miles of destroyed pipelines, concerns over possible water contamination

Emergency contractors are working to replace the pipeline and restore the 4.5-million gallons of water lost.

Amanda del Castillo Image
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
Rush is on to restore miles of pipeline destroyed in wildfire
Seven miles of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipeline have been melted, destroyed by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, prompting concerns of water contamination.

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- Seven miles of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipeline have been melted, destroyed by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Before the complex fire tore through the Santa Cruz Mountains, the pipeline connected surface water sources to the San Lorenzo Valley Water District treatment plant.

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District Manager Rick Rogers says the infrastructure was installed above ground, and was built to withstand earthquakes and mudslides.

"We didn't know the complexity of high-density polyethylene and fire until the Paradise fire," Rogers told ABC7 News. "They found that there was a lot of water quality contamination from that melting plastic. The polyethylene put out volatile organic chemicals, benzene. So those are concerns that we are monitoring and we will be sampling for."

That threat led the district to issue a "Do not drink. Do not boil," Unsafe Water Alert to areas north of Brookdale.

Similar restrictions were put in place after the same material melted in the Tubbs Fire, and reports of the cancer-causing chemical was found in the water supply.

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As firefighters gain even greater containment on the multiple large fires burning across the state, there's still weeks, if not months, of work ahead in damage repair.

Back in the mountains, Chief Deputy Chris Clark with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office warned, "The SLV Water District is advising that you just can't drink the water. You can't even brush your teeth with it- that it's just that unhealthy."

Robert Autrand's Boulder Creek home sits in a red zone- an impacted area, highlighted by a map published by the water district.

"Whatever is going on- who engineered that product and decided not to bury it, it's not a good idea, obviously," Autrand told ABC7 News. "And we're all going to hurt from it."

"We're going to be looking at this 7-miles of pipeline to harden it," Rogers with the water district said. "We don't want this to happen again."

He said the district is now looking at the possibility of burying new pipeline.

"That'll slow down the recovery process to figure out how we're going to do it- to get through all the environmental issues about burying and digging in the watershed. But we'll make it through. We've done it before," he continued.

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"It's just going to take some time," Rogers admitted. "It'll be about a three-year process to get back to where we were."

Rogers admitted, not only are pipelines damaged, but storage tanks too.

He said emergency contractors are working to replace the pipeline and restore the 4.5-million gallons of water lost.

"We are also working on one of the intakes that are shorter distance to our treatment plant to get that back up and online," he explained. "So we can get some surface water running through our treatment plant."

That amount represents 50-percent of the district's water supply, according to Rogers.

Residents remain unsure about what this means for their return home.

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"We don't know anything," Autrand said about the status of his home. "And now they threw the water at us. If they hold us back because of the water, then there's going to be problems."

Rogers told ABC7 News, "The district's water system remains relatively in great condition, except for isolated areas where the fire impact was the greatest. And that's the north area of Boulder Creek, along Ben Lomond where the fire was really raging."

Resident Autrand admitted, "People are going to do things that aren't 'kosher' by sucking off the river with tanks and filling the water tanks up that way from San Lorenzo River."

"If it continues like this for three or four months, we're going to have pretty agitated residents," he said. "I don't know what to do."

The Unsafe Water Alert shared by the district reads:

Affected areas include: Areas north from the town of Ben Lomond at the intersection of Hwy 9 and Alba Road including: the town of Boulder Creek; water services off of Bear Creek Road; water services up Hwy 236 from Hwy 9; Riverside Grove and San Lorenzo Park areas.

To view the full warning, directions, and a map of impacted areas, click here.

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