Facing another vote on sewer project, Morro Bay says delays in project would cost millions

Citizens seeking a new location for the approved Morro Bay sewage treatment plant have gathered more than 1,100 signatures to force a referendum election on the project.

The group hopes to repeal a policy that would clear the way for site annexation; the site of the future wastewater treatment plant is currently outside city limits.

The verified signatures would trigger a vote on the issue in an upcoming election.

City officials say any delays or restructuring of the approved project would cost taxpayers, while the group Citizens for Affordable Living that organized the ballot effort contends an alternate site could keep costs down and prevent sewage spills into the National Estuary.

The referendum could potentially go on the March 2020 primary or November 2020 general election ballot, or a special election could be called, if at least 748 signatures are validated, representing 10 percent of the city’s vote. The city and county still must conduct verification of the signatures.

The referendum seeks to repeal an Aug. 27 approval by the City Council to adopt an ordinance pre-zoning the 27-acre wastewater treatment site for future annexation near the corner of South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1, as required by the Local Area Formation Commission (LAFCO).

“I believe we will overwhelmingly win at the polls,” said Barry Branin of Citizens for Affordable Living. “The estuary is an amazing environmental asset and something incredibly important to the community.”

But City Manager Scott Collins, denying the estuary is at risk after careful review by multiple agencies, countered the effort won’t have any effect on the planning for the controversial project, even if enough signatures are verified and a vote passes.

A successful vote, however, could raise property taxes for residents if the site remains in county jurisdiction instead of city ownership, adding cost on top of the estimated $126 million project price tag, Collins said.

Collins said he didn’t know how much in property taxes could be assessed without further review.

“The property would remain in county jurisdiction, but the treatment plant and reclamation facility still could be built,” Collins said. “Without annexation, it would just mean higher property taxes.”

Citizens for Affordable Living claim National Estuary at risk

Branin said that a primary reason for gathering 1,114 signatures for a vote is the possibility the new treatment plant would spill into the nearby National Estuary.

Branin also believes the project’s $126 million price tag is too high, and that thus far “consultants have run away with the (city’s) checkbook.”

“Our goal is to save the estuary,” Branin said. “You can still build the project for substantially less. It cost in the $50 million range.”

sewer site map
Morro Bay’s new wastewater treatment and water recycling facility will cost an estimated $126 million at its new site at the intersection of South Bay Boulevard and Highway 1. Source: City of Morro Bay

Collins disagrees, however, with that cost estimate. He said current rates, totaling $191 per month for water and sewer billing, are in line with what residents pay in Los Osos and Cayucos, where new wastewater treatment projects were recently built.

“Our recommendation is to continue forward with the project because residents have approved the rate increases (covering the new infrastructure), supported candidates in general elections who advocated for this project, and the Coastal Commission approved it, as well,” Collins said. “The council has determined the best site is located away from the ocean with a lack of impact on neighborhoods.”

Branin said one potential alternate site is near Cayucos, which has some piping that connects to Morro Bay from an area near where Cayucos built a $25 million sewer project.

Morro Bay city manager fires back, defending sewer plan

The Cayucos facility serves a smaller community, however, and without recycled, potable water re-use as Morro Bay is planning.

“We couldn’t use the existing pipeline for a new site near Cayucos because it isn’t adequate to handle the flow,” Collins said. “To get Morro Bay’s sewage transported, it would require a new pipeline and lift station.”

Collins said extensive protections are in place to prevent spills from water quality impacts into the estuary or elsewhere, including back-up generators to move effluent through the plant in event of a power outage.

Morro Bay plans to replace its aging wastewater treatment plant, which was built in 1953. The Coastal Commission approved the new project in July. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Also, mechanical equipment and storm water design infrastructure is planned with several measures to block overflows, Collins said.

“These are similar mitigations that Los Osos placed on their pump stations that are in closer proximity to the estuary than the (planned Morro Bay) facility,” Collins said.

Collins said a recycled, potable water source servicing 80 percent of the city’s water also offers water security, and the reclamation plan has helped to secure a low-interest loan to keep costs down.

The city has spent $10 to $11 million already to conduct a facility Master Plan, environmental impact report and other necessary planning reviews.

City faces fines if it doesn’t clean up its sewage treatment

The city faces mandatory $50,000 fines from the state every month by 2023 if it doesn’t create a viable project that meets treatment standards under the Clean Water Act, hence the urgent need for the new facility without delays or new site planning, Collins said.

Branin, however, believes the possibility of a spill into the estuary remains simply because of its proximity to the approved site, adding that Seattle had a recent wastewater spill into a waterway.

Branin also believes the city hasn’t done enough to keep up its existing wastewater pipeline infrastructure, which he said has fallen into disrepair unnecessarily.

“The city hasn’t repaired those pipes, and they could,” Branin said.

Collins also said that in the past 10 years the city has had “no reportable spills at the (existing) treatment plant,” though he cited spills of more than 3,600 gallons at one lift station between 2006 and 2012, adding that about 2,250 gallons were recovered.

But the lift station and force main where those spills occurred were replaced in February 2013, reducing the chance of failures, city officials said.

Collins said the Coastal Commission has made it clear the new plant should be located away from the ocean, and upgrades of the existing infrastructure is no longer viable after years of planning.

“If the proponents of this (new South Bay Boulevard project) option say the city could drop the reclamation option, or only pursue limited reclamation (for agriculture use), we would likely lose Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) and State Revolving Fund low-interest loans and grants, making it more expensive for rate payers,” Collins said.

The city would pay an estimated $15,000 to $30,000 for a referendum on the March primary, and “notably less” in the general 2020 election, while a special election would be “significantly more,” Collins said.

Correction: A section of this story has been corrected to clarify the city replaced a lift station where spills occurred between 2006 and 2012.

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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.