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After years of fighting, Morro Bay sewer gets final OK by Coastal Commission

Fly over Morro Bay’s wastewater treatment plant — and get a look at its possible future

Morro Bay, California, needs to replace its aging wastewater treatment plant, which was built in 1953. The California Coastal Commission has denied a permit to build a new plant near the Pacific Ocean.
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Morro Bay, California, needs to replace its aging wastewater treatment plant, which was built in 1953. The California Coastal Commission has denied a permit to build a new plant near the Pacific Ocean.

Factions of Morro Bay residents have lobbied on both sides of an effort to build a new sewer for years, and now — finally — the last approval has been granted.

The Coastal Commission approved a proposed new wastewater treatment and water reclamation facility at the intersection of Highway 1 and South Bay Boulevard on Thursday after a decade of planning.

The project is envisioned to go in on about 15 acres of a 396-acre site, which is slated to be annexed into the city.

The commission voted unanimously Thursday to proceed with the new infrastructure plans. Project advocates said the site, located more than 3 miles inland, was the type of plan the commission wanted to see because it will keep the plant away from the sea where it’s vulnerable to flooding, tsunamis and sea-level rise.

“This project will serve as model for future coastal communities in light of rising sea-level issues,” Morro Bay Mayor John Headding said. “We think the result will be beneficial for generations to come.”

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The California Coastal Commission held a hearing on the Morro Bay Sewer plant, Thursday, July 11, 2019. The commission voted unanimously 10-0 to approve the project. Speaking is Kevin Kahn, center, Coastal Commission Central Coast supervisor. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

After an outpouring of impassioned public comment — 25 speakers for and 25 against the project — the commission voted 10-0 to approve the proposal, with two of the 12 members absent.

“I simply want to say that we as a City Council have tried hard to incorporate and act on citizen input,” said Marlys McPherson, a Morro Bay city council member. “We put the project on hold to consider various options and seek ways to keep costs down.”

The infrastructure proposal that went through several iterations over the years, including multiple preferred sites, drew the ire of some who decried the cost and need of the estimated $124 million system.

But advocates who argued a new plant is long overdue can celebrate the official stamp of approval and move forward with plans to start construction in September, pending any potential litigation opposing the project that could hold it up.

The city also can move forward with finalizing its pursuit of low-interest state and federal loans intended to keep costs down.

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The California Coastal Commission held a hearing on the Morro Bay Sewer plant, Thursday, July 11, 2019. The commission voted unanimously 10-0 to approve the project. Laura Dickinson ldickinson@thetribunenews.com

Morro Bay City Manager Scott Collins told The Tribune on Monday that the new sewage treatment plant project will bring a rate increase for city households of $41 per month, raising the average city household utility bill to $191 per month from $150 per month.

But Collins added that low-interest state and federal loan financing could lower the price tag by $5 to $10 per month.

The new plant will replace an aging oceanside treatment plant built in 1953 near the high school that’s failing to meet Clean Water Act standards, according to the Coastal Commission’s staff report.

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Morro Bay’s new wastewater treatment and water recycling facility will cost an estimated $124 million at its new site at the intersection of South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1. Source: City of Morro Bay

The Coastal Commission’s staff recommended approval of project, which includes a water reclamation component that would provide “groundwater replenishment and improved aquifer health, with some 825 acre-feet of water per year, or roughly 80 percent of (Morro Bay’s) yearly water needs,” wrote Kevin Kahn, a Coastal Commission Central Coast district supervisor in charge of planning and development work.

Opponents of the project lobbied against cost, location and handling, including a county Board of Supervisors’ approval of a consolidated planning process that sped up the county’s consideration.

“Those who say the greater benefit of the community outweighs the costs are putting the benefits on the backs of the most vulnerable,” said Carolyn Brinkman, a Morro Bay resident, in public comment.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.
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