Morro Bay faces tough decision over sewer plant

The Morro Bay sewer plant upgrade is at a crossroads.

In an effort to keep costs down, officials had planned to build a new treatment plant near the location of the old one. The state Coastal Commission does not like that idea, and the plans are on hold as officials review their options.

“We are going to have to look at alternative sites,” Morro Bay Mayor Bill Yates said.

At issue is the plant’s location on Atascadero Road, just south of Morro Bay High School. It is right next to the beach and lies within a floodplain and tsunami-inundation zone.

The plant is operated by Morro Bay and the Cayucos Sanitary District under a joint powers agreement. Built in 1954, the plant needs to be completely rebuilt and brought up to tertiary standards, the preferred treatment level, at an estimated cost of $34.3 million.

The plant needs to be replaced because it cannot treat enough sewage to meet state standards and needs a rare waiver to allow it to continue to operate. During high-flow periods, the waiver allows the plant to discharge sewage treated only to the primary level.

Opinions about the best course of action are mixed among the members of the Morro Bay City Council. Councilman Noah Smukler lost faith in the current plans when a 2009 report showed the new treatment plant would be within a 100-year floodplain.

“That was the time to make the shift,” he said.

However, moving the treatment plant would be expensive. A new site must be acquired and new pipelines and a lift station installed. The city estimates that for every $1 million in additional cost, utility rates would go up by $1.

“Moving the treatment plant will cost tens of millions of dollars more, and residents have been adamant that they want costs kept down,” Yates said.

The danger of inundation is not the Coastal Commission’s only criticism of the proposed location. Others are protection of coastal views, the presence of archaeological sites and loss of oceanfront property for recreational uses.

Morro Bay Planning Commissioner John Diodati thinks the city should cut its losses and find a new site. Costs are already beginning to mount as the city gears up to persuade the Coastal Commission to approve the beachside location, a process that is estimated to take 10 months to complete.

These include paying lobbyist Susan McCabe of Marina Del Rey as much as $155,000 to shepherd the project through the Coastal Commission process. Plans are also in the works to hire consultants to analyze the issues raised by the commission. This work could cost from $200,000 to $350,000.

“In 1954, this was probably a good site, but 50 years later, a community has grown up around it,” Diodati said. “We don’t want to repeat a bad decision.”

Possible alternative locations for the treatment plant include unused portions of the Morro Bay power plant and Chevron’s defunct oil terminal midway between Morro Bay and Cayucos.

But these sites pose an additional problem, Yates said. The city would have to use eminent domain condemnation to acquire them.

“Philosophically, I’m against eminent domain,” he said. “Does that mean we wouldn’t do it? I suppose it’s possible.”

A third, less popular option is to upgrade the existing plant to full secondary treatment, which is the minimum standard required by state water officials. Smukler believes this would only delay the inevitable and ultimately make the project more expensive.


Morro Bay and Cayucos officials will discuss the future of their joint sewer plant upgrade when they meet at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Cayucos Veterans Hall.