What's going on with Morro Bay's controversial sewer/water recycling project? Here's an update

This property off Highway 1 near South Bay Boulevard has been chosen as the location of the new Morro Bay sewer plant/water reclamation facility.
This property off Highway 1 near South Bay Boulevard has been chosen as the location of the new Morro Bay sewer plant/water reclamation facility.

Morro Bay’s Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) is racing toward a series of critical decision points between now and mid-summer. We’ve hired a new program manager, the draft EIR is out for public review and two major contractors are preparing bids. As soon as we know the price, we will conduct a rate study to see if we have to ask our citizens for an increase in monthly water and sewer bills.

This is the largest public works project that Morro Bay has ever tackled and the estimated cost, $150 million, is formidable for a city of our size. At this major decision point, it is timely to recap where we are and how we got here.

  • After considering 17 alternative sites, the City Council selected the South Bay Boulevard location as the preferred site for the WRF.

  • We have a new program manager on board to oversee the project from the design phase through construction.

  • We are on the short list of projects invited to apply for a low-interest loan from the EPA.

  • We await design-build proposals, due May 8, that will help us determine the overall cost.

  • We will discuss possible rate increases in May and June and consider a Proposition 218 vote in July or August.

Morro Bay citizens are well known for being informed, engaged, and willing to share their opinions with elected officials. Council has heard months of public comment, mostly suggestions on ways to avoid a substantial increase in monthly water/sewer rates. The city has spent significant time and money responding to public input. That’s good; that’s what we are supposed to do.

Breathtaking drone video taken on Feb. 24, 2018, showing the harbor and beaches of Morro Bay, California.

A group that opposes rate increases to pay for the project, Morro Bay’s Citizens for Affordable Living (CAL), has provided a valuable service by bringing up questions, objections and proposals to improve the project. Council’s responses have been the following:

  • We paused during site selection to choose a site that does not offend any of our neighbors.

  • When community members asked us to reconsider the expense of moving the city’s corporation yard to the new site, council removed that from the plans.

  • When community members asked to have a group of outside experts look at the project, we paused for a peer review performed by a panel of licensed engineers who have recently built water treatment facilities. They recommended cost savings of approximately $17 million.

  • When community members asked us to see about joining the Cayucos Sanitary District (CSD), I met with CSD President Robert Enns and project manager Rick Koon and found out that we could not combine to build a joint project because of their funding restrictions.

  • When community members asked us to build on a site next to the Cayucos project, we investigated and found that the distance to the Toro Valley was too far from our collection facility to make that economically feasible.

  • When community members asked us to scale down the plant and remove water reclamation, we found out that the cost saving would evaporate because we would lose eligibility for low-cost EPA loans and grants. In addition, as drought becomes a way of life in California, drinking water becomes more valuable than gold.

  • When CAL asked us to hire retired City Engineer Frank Cunningham to manage the project, I called Frank and found out that he was not interested and that no one from CAL had even talked to him.

  • When community members asked us to revisit building the plant in its current location, we paused to ask Coastal Commission staff one more time to reconsider an application that the Commission denied in 2013. Dan Carl, Central Coast District Director, clearly stated his and staff’s opposition to any site west of Highway 1 and unequivocal support of a site north of South Bay Boulevard on the east side of the city.

  • When the city asked the Regional Water Quality Control Board for a waiver to meet secondary discharge standards, the board issued a Time Schedule Order (TSO) giving the City until March 2023 to come into compliance.

  • When community members said we could not proceed in designing the project without knowing the true cost of the plant, we issued a Request For Proposals (RFP) to get a maximum guaranteed price.

  • When community members said that the RFP excluded alternative low-cost solutions for water treatment, we added a paragraph that specifically invited and requested cheaper alternative solutions that will still meet community goals.

  • When community members said that we were excluding PERC Water Systems from bidding, I personally called PERC Vice President Steve Owen and asked him to submit a bid. After attending the pre-bid meeting, Mr Owen declined to participate.

  • When community members asked us to hire a program manager to act as owner’s agent, CAL assisted in the hiring process and our city manager selected Eric Casares of Carollo Engineers as best qualified to meet community goals.

Council members have conducted this process with due diligence and have welcomed ideas from all sources. We have actively looked for creative solutions and least expensive alternatives and we will continue to do that.

We have support and encouragement from EPA, the Water Quality Control Board, Coastal Commission staff, Public Works directors from around the County and, I believe, the Morro Bay community at large.

We have, in fact, received a letter of support from Dr. Jean-Pierre Wolff, chair of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, stating that “We concur with the city’s plan to build a new facility out of the coastal zone that is capable of producing recycled water.” Dr Wolff also writes in the same letter, “The Central Coast Water Board has encouraged the city to take these steps as a means to address water supply security planning and climate change adaptation.”

I believe the council, city staff and consultants are on the right track. We will continue on the right track as we remain open to public input and alternative ideas.

Robert "Red" Davis was elected to the Morro Bay City Council in 2016.

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