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Morro Bay to debate new sewer plans as project estimates hit over $100 million

Morro Bay’s sewer treatment plant at 170 Atascadero Road is deteriorating. Where to build the city’s new plant continues to be a point of contention in the city.
Morro Bay’s sewer treatment plant at 170 Atascadero Road is deteriorating. Where to build the city’s new plant continues to be a point of contention in the city. The Tribune

With hints of the Los Osos sewer debate that raged on for years, Morro Bay is becoming increasingly divided over where to build the city’s new wastewater treatment plant and how much it should cost.

On Tuesday night, the City Council will once again revisit the issue, and it’s expected to draw a packed house and more controversy.

Morro Bay’s debate is familiar: Should it try to persuade the Coastal Commission’s staff to allow a plant near the ocean to potentially save millions in lower project costs? Or should it build inland to avoid significant environmental and permitting risks and ensure needed long-term infrastructure?

The city received a letter Friday from the agency that could decide the fate of the future project. Dan Carl, the Coastal Commission’s Central Coast district director, cited major regulatory challenges if Morro Bay pursues any option west of Highway 1, a possibility the city recently revisited.

“We continue to believe that the South Bay Boulevard site (at the inland intersection of Highway 1 and South Bay Boulevard) remains the city’s best option at this juncture, including because it is not encumbered by the uncertainties associated with the sites west of Highway 1,” Carl wrote.

An oceanside facility risks project denial from the Coastal Commission “due to coastal hazard issues,” Carl added.

Those include seawater rise, tsunamis and flooding.

Carl told The Tribune by phone on Friday that the probability for permitting approval of a South Bay site is “high” and an oceanside plant is “low.” But Carl didn’t rule out the oceanside option.

The city won a bid with 11 other cities last summer to become eligible for a low-interest $82 million federal loan from the Environmental Protection Agency. But it must select a project site and complete an environmental impact report, which would take at least eight months, said City Engineer Rob Livick. The city has a deadline of July 2018 to file its paperwork with the EPA.

SEWER SITE 2016_Tribune

When the Coastal Commission denied a proposed Morro Bay wastewater project near the ocean four years ago to replace its aging, deteriorating facility at 170 Atascadero Road, the city appeared destined to build inland.

But in recent months, community opposition to an estimated $167 million sewage treatment and water reclamation plant at the South Bay site prompted a review of cheaper options. A peer review report from local engineers and officials from neighboring government jurisdictions suggested the city re-examine the oceanside plant option to save money.

Meanwhile, a grassroots group called Citizens for Affordable Living also has formed to oppose a high-cost plant, advocating an oceanside facility.

“We’ve talked to wastewater experts who say an oceanside facility can be built for $35 to $50 million,” said Jeff Heller, a group organizer. “If we build at $167 million price tag the city is telling us, nobody but wealthy people will be able to afford to live here. We’re a working-class town.”

The city has projected a cost of about $124 million to build an oceanside facility at a site the city calls the Hanson property. But Heller calls that estimate too high.

The city has relied on industry experts, including Michael K. Nunley and Associates and Black & Veatch, to estimate costs. But Heller counters the city has wasted money on years of consulting work without producing a viable site option.

We’ve talked to wastewater experts who say an oceanside facility can be built for $35 to $50 million. If we build at $167 million price tag the city is telling us, nobody but wealthy people could afford to live here. We’re a working class town.

Jeff Heller, Citizens for Affordable Living

Heller’s group has gone door to door to lobby residents throughout the city and hand out fliers. Heller said the group will rally to block a costly plant by protesting sewer rate increases under Proposition 218.

“I have absolute confidence that we can get a majority vote of opposition if it comes to it,” Heller said.

Mayor Jamie Irons said he can’t predict the council’s direction on Tuesday, whether, for example, they might commit to one site, pursue more community outreach or seek additional information on potential locations. But he said he wants a fact-based discussion.

“I just want to make sure people have accurate information,” Irons said. “I feel like there’s a lot of misinformation getting put out there.”

Carl said the Coastal Commission staff’s review of an oceanside plant application possibly could take up to two years before a decision is rendered, causing the city to lose its low-interest loan.

Livick estimates the EPA loan, of 2.6 percent compared with about 5 percent for municipal bonds, would save the city about $35 million.

Tuesday night’s City Council meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Veterans Memorial Building at 209 Surf St.

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