Morro Bay residents cite cost as key concern with sewage plant proposals

Keeping the cost down is emerging as a key concern as residents and officials in Morro Bay grapple with the prospect of paying $90 million to $160 million for a new sewage treatment and disposal facility.

The Morro Bay City Council held a public workshop Tuesday to look at seven potential sites in and around Morro Bay for a new treatment plant to replace the outdated facility near the beach north of Morro Rock that no longer meets state discharge standards.

The workshop reviewed a study of potential sites that prompted plenty of discussion, although the council was not scheduled to make any decisions. A final version of the study will return to the council in December.

John Rickenbach, an Atascadero consultant whose firm prepared the study for the city, said the costs are only estimates. But the idea of paying $100 million or more for a new treatment plant caused sticker shock in the community.

“Every site is going to be costly,” Rickenbach said. “We would be doing a disservice if we underestimated the cost.”

The study identified a 12-acre site south of the Morro Bay power plant as the cheapest option at $90 million. Five of the other sites came in at or near the $100 million mark, while a site at Cuesta College, where the sewage treatment plant for the California Men’s Colony prison is located, was the most expensive at $160 million.

“People are getting really scared by these numbers,” Morro Bay resident David Nelson told the council Tuesday. “I think you could do it a lot cheaper.”

Much of the discussion Tuesday centered on ways to bring down cost. One option would be to build the plant in phases, Councilman Noah Smukler said.

The process could start by building the main treatment plant and then over a much longer period adding infrastructure such as water reclamation facilities and pipelines that could deliver treated wastewater to farmers and golf courses for irrigation.

Water reclamation can significantly drive up the cost of a project because it requires a lot of piping and pumping, said Rob Livick, city public services director. Also, some crops require irrigation water that has received additional and expensive treatment to remove salts and nutrients.

“With as many unknowns as there are with these sites, we are being particularly conservative at this point,” he said.

One of the goals of building a new plant is to fully treat the wastewater and then reuse as much of it as possible. Wastewater treated at the city’s current plant is discharged into the ocean.

Morro Bay resident John Diodati agreed, saying the treatment plant could be built for about $33 million and the reclamation infrastructure added as additional funding becomes available.

Diodati also urged city officials to work closely with state regulatory agencies such as the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Coastal Commission. The Coastal Commission rejected the city’s original plans to build a new plant at the current plant’s location, something that could have been avoided if the city had listened to the commission’s concerns earlier, Diodati said.

The city will also take another look at the prison site, Smukler said. The high cost of building a new plant there was based on the assumption that the city would build a separate facility.

Costs could be cut considerably if a way could be found to use the prison’s existing facility, Smukler said. Several members of the public said such a regional, multiagency plant was the only option that makes sense.