While serving as Morro Bay mayor and councilwoman for 14 years, I was actively involved in the Morro Bay/Cayucos wastewater treatment plant upgrade from the beginning, and am writing in response to your Aug. 5 editorial.
First, a reminder that Morro Bay hit hard times a few years before the recession, when the power plant reduced operation and our fishing industry was curtailed by implementation of marine-protected areas, resulting in an annual $3 million to $5 million reduction in revenue for a city with an annual budget of $19 million. We made major cuts to our staff and spending, and increased our city sales tax. We’re still struggling, but beginning to see some recovery.
The median age of our population of 10,234 residents is 49, and the median income is $50,000. We have many retirees living on fixed incomes, and nearly 14 percent of our population is at poverty level. The majority of our residents cannot afford a wastewater bill of $100-$150 per month (currently $45/month), and the city can’t give lowincome discounts. Such a large increase would also be devastating for the lodging industry, restaurants and many already struggling small businesses.
The City Council took all this into consideration when we and the Cayucos Sanitary District Board (our partners in the treatment plant Joint Powers Agreement) reviewed various options for the plant upgrade, required by the Regional Water Quality Control Board to be completed by March of 2014, when the state waiver on the existing plant expires. Cost was, and is, a major consideration in maintaining the current location. Our design puts the plant at a higher elevation to mitigate flood zone issues and have minimal impact on public views. We chose to go to full tertiary treatment and include capability for future reclamation, although there is little potential use for reclaimed water at this time.
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We began slowly raising our wastewater billing rates based on the proposed project cost, so that our residents wouldn’t be hit with a big increase later on, as is the case in Los Osos now.
The California Coastal Commission staff report, quoted by your editorial, minimizes that potential increase. Their suggestion to move the plant to the Righetti property, outside our city limits on Highway 41, will be staggeringly expensive. In addition to the purchase price of $2.4 million, this is county property, over which we have no sphere of influence, and will need to address with the Local Agency Formation Commission board. Then we will need to change the zoning from agricultural to industrial, search for and mitigate archeological sites, design a new project that mitigates for the property being on an earthquake fault, clear the land for construction, acquire easement permits from Caltrans to trench for piping along State Highway 41 (at $150 per foot; $792,000 per mile) and ultimately build the project.
Currently the majority of our wastewater runs downhill, powered by gravity and minimal energy-using assistance. To pump it all uphill several miles would require constant power and maintenance, using much more energy and probably more personnel, at significantly more cost.
The Coastal Commission staff suggests the cost of moving the plant will be offset by new visitor serving uses on the current sewer plant site, right after they state that nothing should be built in a flood plain. Bike paths and parks do not produce revenue, but do cost the city money to maintain.
Additionally, there is no guarantee that Cayucos will share the relocation costs, as the existing plant is sufficient for treating their sewage if Morro Bay’s sewage is treated elsewhere. With the sewer plant remaining to service Cayucos, plus the adjoining City maintenance yard and desalination plant, Hansen Cement Plant and Hixson Construction yard, there is no space available for any new uses.
In addition to the increased costs, and the four years of work and half a million dollars already spent on this project that will be lost, there is a very important time factor. Starting over means we will not meet the 2014 expiration date of the state’s waiver. It could easily be another four to 10 years to complete this project as Coastal Commission staff recommends.
The JPA responded to the Coastal Commission staff report with a 20-pluspage document that can be found on the City’s website (morro-bay.ca.us. under WWTP upgrade project) which outlines numerous inconsistencies, inaccuracies and omissions from the Commission’s staff report. The JPA is recommending that the California Coastal Commission approve the permit with conditions consistent with the California Coastal Act, and Local Coastal Plan regulations. This approval will allow Morro Bay and Cayucos to be online in 2014 with a financially and environmentally economical wastewater treatment plant.
Former Mayor Janice Peters retired from her seat on the Morro Bay City Council in 2010.