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As costs soar, Morro Bay to reconsider location for new wastewater treatment plant

In 2013, the state Coastal Commission denied a permit for a new wastewater treatment plant at the current oceanside location in Morro Bay. That property is again back on the table due to rising costs.
In 2013, the state Coastal Commission denied a permit for a new wastewater treatment plant at the current oceanside location in Morro Bay. That property is again back on the table due to rising costs. The Tribune

With water rates expected to skyrocket should the city move ahead with a $167 million wastewater treatment plant and a water reclamation facility at its preferred site, Morro Bay will hit a soft pause on the existing project to see if state regulators will go along with a plan to re-evaluate other cheaper sites.

For the past few years, the city has pursued building a facility at the intersection of South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1.

On Tuesday, the Morro Bay City Council voted unanimously to direct staff to engage the California Coastal Commission and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) on the feasibility of building the plants at or near the existing treatment plant site on Atascadero Road, which could save the city about $40 million.

The council also directed staff to calculate costs for building both plants at two alternative sites — the Righetti property north of Highway 41 just west of Rancho Colina Recreational Vehicle Park, and the Giannini property near Hillcrest Drive and Little Morro Creek Road, east of Highway 1. The council wants those costs and options for gathering citizen input within 60 days.

About 20 people spoke before the council, with most saying the currently proposed project would be untenable for residents, many on fixed incomes, as well as businesses.

I don’t have the option of just passing that cost on to customers.

Rob Kitzman, owner of Kitzman’s Culligan Water

Rob Kitzman, owner of Kitzman’s Culligan Water, said his firm’s current water and sewer bills are about $40,000 a year. The currently proposed rate increases — not including any increases related to building the facilities — already comes to an additional $32,000 annually, or roughly the equivalent of one full-time, $16 per hour employee, he said.

“I don’t have the option of just passing that cost onto customers, like a city who does not have competition does,” Kitzman told the council.

In its motion, the council noted that the 60-day window may need to be expanded based on what direction water board and Coastal Commission staff give.

Both agencies have serious concerns about the delay.

Time is not on your side.

Jean-Pierre Wolff, Chair of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board

On Tuesday, RWQCB Chair Jean-Pierre Wolff told the council that the delays have implications for the city’s water quality. On busy days, he said, the city’s antiquated treatment plant doesn’t treat water to state standards. The city’s plant is also now the only one in the state operating with a waiver for secondary treatment of its discharge, he said, and whatever future permit the agency grants will not waive those standards, meaning “significant” fines for the city.

“We’re getting to the point where, unfortunately, we will not have a lot of options,” Wolff told the council. “Time is not on your side.”

Despite that, Wolff pledged the agency’s help moving forward.

The Coastal Commission may not be as willing to cooperate. Hours before the meeting, Dan Carl, district director for the Coastal Commission, sent the city a letter saying he was “frankly shocked that the city would consider such a radical change in strategy” without consulting commission staff, especially given the commission’s 2013 denial of a coastal permit for a new treatment plant at its existing site.

“With all due respect, we would strongly advise continuing with the (water reclamation facility) process we have all worked so hard on since the commission’s denial four years ago, and we encourage the council’s support to continue to pursue that strategy and to not abandon all of the City’s (and others’) significant efforts,” Carl wrote.

With its vote, the council followed the direction of a June 29 report by a peer review panel of wastewater experts from across the county, which recommended investigating the feasibility of a new oceanside plant due to cost. A citizens’ advisory committee earlier this month proposed continuing on with the South Bay Boulevard site, but allowing two months to look at costs of a new oceanside plant.

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

Correction: This article has been updated to correct water rate info related to Kitzman’s Culligan Water.

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