Morro Bay has a plan for a new sewer plant — now it needs the public’s support

After five years, 17 proposed sites and numerous heated public forums, the future of Morro Bay’s wastewater treatment plant is now in the hands of the people who will pay for it.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday evening to give the public the chance to weigh in on a proposed $41 monthly surcharge that would pay for the hotly contested $128.5 million water reclamation facility (WRF). The vote kicked off a 45-day period ending Aug. 28 in which an estimated 5,800 Morro Bay water/sewer ratepayers and parcel owners can weigh in on the increase.

Under California Proposition 218, the surcharge will be rejected if the city receives a signed protest ballot from 50 percent plus one of all Morro Bay ratepayers and parcel owners.

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If the surcharge goes into effect, Morro Bay water and sewer ratepayers will pay between $165 and $236.50 a month, with the average customer paying $191, beginning July 1, 2019.

If approved, the city will have the funding to proceed with the planned WRF project; if it is rejected, it will be forced to scrap the existing plan and come up with another.

Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of a five-year process, as the city was tasked with replacing its aging wastewater treatment plant.

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Morro Bay's aging wastewater treatment plant was built in 1953 and is well past its planned lifespan. The Coastal Commission has ruled that the plant must be moved inland away from the coast. Jayson Mellom The Tribune

Project history

Morro Bay’s current wastewater treatment plant was built in 1953, and though it received an upgrade in 1984, City Manager Scott Collins said the plant is well past its lifespan.

Collins said the plant regularly exceeds its million-gallon-per-day capacity, and were it not for a special order from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the city could face up to $50,000 a month in fines.

While the city initially sought to build a replacement plant at or near the existing plant’s location, that effort was stymied in January 2013 by the California Coastal Commission, which voted unanimously to deny the city a permit to build the new plant near the ocean.

The commission determined the existing location was too vulnerable to floods, tsunamis and rising sea levels as a result of global warming. As a result, the commission flatly rejected any location west of Highway 1.

Morro Bay Mayor Jamie Irons and Collins said the city has examined 17 possible locations for the project and ended up selecting a parcel approximately 1 mile east of downtown near the intersection of South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1.

While the location has met with approval from the Coastal Commission, it is not without detractors.

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A hot-button issue

The Northern Chumash Tribal Council has objected to the proposed route for a pipeline associated with the project, which may run through an area containing sacred tribal sites or burial grounds. Tribal chairman Fred Collins said he has not ruled out legal action to prevent the pipeline from going in.

While City Manager Collins said that the city would undergo mitigation procedures in the event that tribal graves are unearthed in the pipeline construction, tribal chairman Collins — no relation — said at Tuesday’s meeting “we have never found mitigation for burials.”

Other residents have objected to the relocation of the plant.

“We think the city just needs to try hard to get a location that makes sense at or near our existing plant,” said Jeff Heller, with the group Citizens for Affordable Living Morro Bay.

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Morro Bay resident Aaron Ochs, who runs the group “Save Morro Bay” and operates the website SLOtruth.org, agreed, saying the city has not pushed hard enough to keep the plant at the original location. He said that location could be viable if the city raised the elevation.

“That’s something I feel the city could work with the California Coastal Commission more closely,” he said.

Dan Carl, director of the Central Coast division of the Coastal Commission, denied that the commission and the city were at odds.

“We’ve been working pretty closely with the city since the denial (of the permit). ... To their great credit, they’ve taken it very seriously,” he said.

Other residents have objected specifically to the proposed site’s elevation.

“We believe in gravity, strongly,” Heller said.

Heller said the property chosen by the city, located inland and uphill, “goes against all basic laws of gravity and also cost.”

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Both Heller and Ochs, though, said the city was guilty of a bait-and-switch. Ochs said voters already approved a Proposition 218 rate increase in 2015.

“Now three years later, they’re asking us to pay more for the same project,” he said.

Heller said three years after raising the rates, the city of Morro Bay “has not replaced one sewer line or water line with that money.”

City officials contend that the money raised by the 2015 rate increase “has been used for the planning effort for the WRF program.”

What revenue didn’t go toward planning went into an “accumulation fund” that “will be used to reduce the amount the city will have to borrow for the WRF program through bonds or low-interest loans,” according to a city statement.

Morro Bay leaders need the support of ratepayers and parcel owners before they can move forward on plans for a new water reclamation facility. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

‘We are at the precipice’

Collins stressed the urgency of the Prop. 218 vote at Tuesday’s at-times contentious meeting.

“We are at the precipice of a very important point of this project,” he said.

Council member Robert Davis laid out the consequences if the project is voted down.

For one, the city would have to go back to the design phase, and that would mean scrapping the water recycling component. The water recycling component of the new plant will account for $1.50 of the proposed $41 increase, because it will be funded largely through low-interest loans.

Without water recycling, the city would not qualify for those low-interest loans, and so it would have to fund the project through bonds.

Davis said the project would end up costing more and providing less.

Additionally, the city has a series of rolling deadlines from the Regional Water Quality Board, culminating in a final deadline of Dec. 30, 2022, when the project must be finished. Failure to meet that goal could expose the city to heavy fines, Davis said.

The council member warned the public that Morro Bay was on the verge of going the way of Los Osos’ costly wastewater process. That project was mired was mired in controversy for years, and ultimately resulted in the Los Osos Community Services District filing for bankruptcy protection as it dealt with lawsuits and millions of dollars in debt. The project was eventually turned over to the county.

“If we don’t learn from Los Osos’ history, then we will repeat their story,” Davis said.

Other council members shared Davis’ sense of urgency.

“It’s critical that we move forward at this point,” said Marlys McPherson.

“Every aspect of cost has been well-evaluated,” said John Headding, who attended Tuesday’s meeting by phone.

Voting information

Collins said the city will send out the Prop. 218 ballots by the end of the week. Ballot recipients may either mail or hand deliver their ballot to the City Clerk’s Office, 595 Harbor St., Morro Bay, CA, 93442.

A person does not have to be a resident of Morro Bay, a registered voter or even a U.S. citizen to vote; if they own a parcel of land in Morro Bay or pay a water/sewer bill to the city, they qualify to vote. People who are both ratepayers and property owners still only get one vote.

Votes will be accepted up to a public hearing scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 28. People may also submit protest ballots at that meeting.

More information about the project is available by visiting Morro Bay City Hall during open office hours or going to morrobaywrf.com.

In addition, the Citizens for Affordable Living will be holding their own informational workshop from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday at the Inn at Morro Bay.