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Morro Bay to reconsider oceanside wastewater treatment plant to save money

The existing Morro Bay wastewater treatment plant.
The existing Morro Bay wastewater treatment plant. The Tribune

Four years after the state Coastal Commission rejected a proposal to build a new wastewater treatment plant at its existing oceanside plant site, the Morro Bay City Council will consider revisiting that option.

On Tuesday, the council will review a recommendation by a peer review panel of local wastewater experts to investigate the feasibility of a new oceanside plant, and consult the Coastal Commission, to save an estimated $38 to $43 million.

The council currently has an inland site in mind at the intersection of South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1.

I think they hit the nail on the head that the main driver of the cost is the location.

Rob Livick, Morro Bay engineer

Morro Bay’s peer review panel consisted of Matt Thompson, Paso Robles’ wastewater division manager; John Waddell, the Los Osos wastewater project manager; Russ Fleming, Pismo Beach’s utilities manager; and Dave Hix, San Luis Obispo’s utilities department deputy director for wastewater.

“I think they hit the nail on the head that the main driver of the cost is the location,” said Rob Livick, Morro Bay’s engineer. “We told the council that we’d bring back everything that the peer review panel told us, no matter if we liked hearing the news or not. We want to honor the promise that we made to the community.”

A Morro Bay citizens advisory committee held a July 5 meeting and recommended continuing to plan for the facility at the City Council’s preferred South Bay Boulevard site. But, in response to public comment, it also recommended taking up to two months to investigate the possibility of building the plant at or near its current oceanside site.

Many Morro Bay residents have objected to the proposed $167 million wastewater treatment plant and water reclamation facility at the council’s preferred site.

Based on community concerns, the council opted to delay its goal to build the water reclamation facility and focus on an initial wastewater treatment plant, lowering the short-term cost to between $123 million and $136 million, depending on the quality of wastewater treatment.

A combined new wastewater treatment plant and water reclamation facility at the existing oceanside site would cost about $125 million, according to a preliminary estimate by the city’s engineering consultant Black & Veatch.

We have an opportunity to work through this reasonably and rationally. Regardless of how this turns out, I don’t want to build something that leaves an emotional sting in the community. We have a good working city council.

Jamie Irons, Morro Bay mayor

The Coastal Commission rejected a city permit application in 2013 to build a plant at the existing site. The idea of a new oceanside plant in an environmentally sensitive area bitterly divided residents and council members at the time.

Livick said that the peer review analysis showed that the infrastructure costs associated with piping and pumping to a site farther away from town drive up the cost.

But the Coastal Commission may view the existing site as acceptable now, Livick said, because the current proposal includes a water recyling component — which wasn’t part of the previous plan — and other factors such as positioning the plant in a location outside of a potential flood area. Still, he noted brine would need to be disposed of, and permitting hurdles would present a challenge.

Mayor Jamie Irons, who has opposed an oceanside plant, said he would wait until Tuesday to comment publicly on whether to pursue the peer review panel’s recommendation.

“We have an opportunity to work through this reasonably and rationally,” Irons said. “Regardless of how this turns out, I don’t want to build something that leaves an emotional sting in the community. We have a good working city council.”

Councilman Robert “Red” Davis said he believes state law will allow for direct potable reuse of recycled water in the near future (rather than groundwater recharge), which would lower the cost of a water recycling facility. Davis, however, said he wasn’t prepared to comment yet on which site he’d prefer.

“My highest priority is to deliver the treatment plant at the lowest possible cost to the residents,” Davis said. “That will be my guiding light.”

The peer review panel also identified about $8.6 million in cost savings at the South Bay Boulevard site, through recommendations such as building on flatter ground, reducing masonry and architectural materials, and focusing on cheaper ways to reduce odors.

Correction: This story has been edited to more fully reflect the views of the citizens advisory committee.

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