Morro Bay’s new sewer facility delayed again — this time because of a frog

A species of frog made famous by a Mark Twain short story has delayed construction on Morro Bay’s new sewer plant, even though the protected amphibian hasn’t been spotted anywhere on the site in years.

Work on the long-awaited Water Reclamation Facility off South Bay Boulevard was poised to begin before the end of the year, but that can’t happen until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signs off on efforts to protect the California red-legged frog, which plays a starring role in Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

The city of Morro Bay has been working with the Environmental Protection Agency for the past several years to secure low-interest funding for the project through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act for the Water Reclamation Facility project.

Since the facility will be receiving federal funds, it must comply with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

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

One of these requirements is review by Fish and Wildlife under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act. With technical support being provided by the city, this review began in June 2019.

On Oct. 10, the EPA received a letter from Fish and Wildlife indicating that, based on the information that had been provided, the agency did not agree with the EPA’s determination that the project “may affect, but is not likely to adversely impact” the red-legged frog and its critical habitat.

The EPA responded to Fish and Wildlife on Oct. 22 with additional information on proposed mitigation efforts and requested that the agency update its determination.

There has not been a red-legged frog sighting within a square mile of the South Bay site since 1996, the city said.

“The city considered the red-legged frog in the environmental impact report and began the review process with EPA and Fish and Wildlife in June. While the timing is unfortunate as we are prepared to start construction, we will work expeditiously with the EPA and Fish and Wildlife to resolve these important considerations,” City Manager Scott Collins said.

Construction on the South Bay Boulevard site cannot start until the EPA finalizes its environmental review.

Within the next several weeks the city should know the approximate magnitude of the potential delays resulting from review by Fish and Wildlife.

The current schedule calls for construction to begin in 2019 with the project completed by 2022.

The new facility will replace the city’s current wastewater treatment plant, which is located near the high school and was built in 1953.

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