Morro Bay’s sewage plant proposal should be flushed

The state Coastal Commission staff made the right call when it recommended against permitting a new Morro Bay sewage treatment plant on the coast, in a location that’s within a flood plain and tsunami zone.

We strongly urge the commission to follow through on its staff’s recommendation and deny the permit application for a project that’s so ill advised we’re amazed it’s progressed as far as it has.

Some background: Built in 1954, the city’s existing plant — which serves both Morro Bay and Cayucos — has been upgraded several times. The plant discharges treated wastewater into the ocean, but the city is under astate order to upgrade the level of treatment. It proposes to build a new treatment plant — one capable of treating wastewater to an acceptable level — in the same area as the current plant. After the new plant is built, the existing one will be demolished.

We see several problems with this plan:

The area is vulnerable to flooding; the city’s own estimates show that the site — including the footprint of the proposed new plant — would be under 2.8 to 4.7 feet of water during a 100-year flood.

The city does plan to take steps to minimize the danger, including elevating buildings above flood level and bringing in “fill” to raise the elevation. But as the Coastal Commission staff report points out, using fill to raise the elevation “is reasonably expected to exacerbate flooding at surrounding properties.”

Building in a flood plain is dangerous — it’s also prohibited. The Local Coastal Program is quite clear: “All development, including construction, excavation and grading, except for flood control projects and agricultural uses shall be prohibited in the 100-year flood plain areas ”

A sewage treatment plant is an exceptionally poor way to use such valuable public property. The location is perfect for pedestrian walkways, biking trails, playground and picnic spots and other facilities that would help draw visitors and boost tourism-related revenue.

Instead of capitalizing on this opportunity, the city plans to build a facility that would actually degrade the area. Here are a few of the negative consequences pointed out in the Coastal Commission report:

The new plant would include taller buildings — another precaution to avoid flooding — that would interfere with coastal views.

The project proposes a different type of solids handling process and according to one analysis, it would result in “potentially stronger odors than those currently produced.”

There would be more truck traffic, including six truck trips per day to remove biosolids.

Granted, some impacts are unavoidable — this is a sewage treatment plant, after all — but that’s exactly why it makes no sense to build a new plant in such a coveted location that draws so many visitors.

So why do it?

In a word: cost. The city estimates that moving the plant to the Righetti Ranch site on the outskirts of the city — the location preferred by the Coastal Commission staff — could add nearly $25 million to the already hefty, $34 million price tag.

The Coastal Commission staff disagrees, however. According to its report, the city based that estimate on land acquisition costs of $7.5 million, when the property is on the market for $2.4 million. The staff report raises questions about other costs as well, and it points out that the city’s figures don’t consider revenue that would be generated by using the coastal site for recreation, rather than sewage treatment.

Consider, too, that the city’s inflated estimate doesn’t consider the huge environmental damages and public health threat — plus the substantial fines the city could face — should a sewage spill result from flooding at the coastal site.

Bottom line: Siting a sewage treatment plant on oceanfront property may have made sense back in 1954, but the city now has an opportunity to make far better use of this valuable piece of coastline.

It’s time to forget, once and for all, a plan that defies common sense and ignores coastal safety policies and pursue a new site for Morro Bay’s wastewater treatment plant.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.