Morro Bay speeds up timeline for new sewage treatment plant

nwilson@thetribunenews.comFebruary 27, 2014 

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year for the sewer plant's last major upgrade; it was in 1983.

Morro Bay’s new sewer project may be built on a faster track than originally anticipated.

The Morro Bay City Council voted 5-0 on Tuesday to hasten the estimated completion of its new sewage treatment plant to a five-year timeline from an estimated seven- to 10-year schedule.

City engineer Rob Livick said the timeline would reduce construction costs and make reclaimed water available sooner.

The new plant would replace Morro Bay’s aging seaside facility and treat sewage to produce reclaimed water that could be used for irrigation.

Morro Creek Ranch, which farms 27,000 avocado trees on 227 acres, has already expressed interest in buying water from the city, highlighting one potential use of the reclaimed water.

The city currently budgets $1 million per year in needed repairs for the existing sewer plant, which was built in the 1950s and had its last major upgrade in 1983.

A new reclamation facility would free the city from those repair costs sooner, Livick said, and also reduce building costs over the long run.

“As it takes longer to build these things, rates don’t get cheaper,” Livick said.

The city currently also has a pending application with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board that would extend Morro Bay’s permit for its existing plant for five more years.

The five-year timeline to build the new plant would coincide with the expiration of that permit and honor an agreement with the board to phase out its need to discharge treated wastewater into the ocean.

Councilwoman Christine Johnson said the condensed timeline sends a “message we’re very dedicated about moving the project forward.”

Councilwoman Nancy Johnson, while in favor of the new timeline, pushed for a cost analysis for ratepayers.

“People are asking me all the time, what is the sewer going to cost them?” Johnson said. “People want to know.”

Livick estimated that a rate analysis could be completed by late spring or early summer as the city gets closer to deciding on a site for the project.

Councilman Noah Smukler said a rate assessment is “important to get out there” but might not be as accurate as it would closer to the project’s completion.

“It probably won’t be as specific as hoped for,” Smukler said.

Livick said that the final ratepayer assessment likely would be made a “couple of years down the road.”

The city has narrowed its preferred sites to three properties.

The council’s preferred site is the “Morro Valley” property consisting of two parcels totaling 446 acres east of the city along the north side of Highway 41. The estimated construction cost is $100 million.

The project would take up about 10 acres, Livick said. City negotiations with property owners on the purchases of land have yet to begin.

Meanwhile, the city still is considering an option for a plant near the California Men’s Colony, in partnership with the Cayucos Sanitary District.

The 119-acre site, near the Cuesta College campus, would place the new facility next to the sewage treatment plant used by the California Men's Colony prison and share some operations. The estimated cost for that project is $160 million.

According to Tuesday’s resolution, the city would finalize its site selection by August, finish its master facilities plan by December 2015 and design by August 2017, and complete construction by February 2019.

The council also agreed to form a citizen’s advisory committee of seven to nine members to provide input on the direction of the new sewer.

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