The city of Morro Bay has been trying to replace its aging and noncompliant wastewater treatment plant since at least 2003 — 15 years — well before the tenure of current City Council members.
In January 2013, the California Coastal Commission denied a coastal development permit approved by a prior Morro Bay City Council to build a replacement facility at its current location near the beach. The Coastal Commission identified many reasons to deny the permit, including incompatibility of the project with the city’s Local Coastal Plan; building in a known flood zone; and inadequate provisions for recycling wastewater.
Since 2013, the Morro Bay City Council has conducted an inclusive and deliberative planning process for the new wastewater recycling facility (WRF) including numerous public meetings and workshops to provide opportunities for public participation and input.
The result has been selection of a new location that addresses neighborhood concerns and a facility design that complies with regulatory requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. The WRF also produces highly treated water to provide a secure local water source for Morro Bay’s future needs.
Critics of the city’s project harp on past cost estimates for a project that has evolved over many years, including withdrawal of the Cayucos CSD to build its own treatment facility. They complain about city mismanagement and delays, spending on consultants to design and manage the project and not providing an active role for local activists and their self-appointed experts who vociferously oppose the city’s project. They also insist cheaper project alternatives exist or that the city can continue operating the existing treatment plant in violation of the plant's EPA permit and settlement agreement with the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
There’s no factual basis to claims the city mismanaged the project, caused undue delays or wasted money on consultants. The city has a small staff, lacks in-house expertise to manage a project of this scale and needed to hire professional consultants to provide those services. These consultants have produced a Site Screening Study, a Facility Master Plan, an Environmental Impact Report, a Design-Build RFP document and have led and participated in numerous public meetings and workshops.
They are currently assisting city staff in evaluating proposals from two contractors to build the WRF. Council is listening to residents and has paused the project to investigate and address concerns about the WRF’s location, the possibility of repartnering with Cayucos, finding cost savings and revisiting the possibility of building a new WRF near the current site. Based on resident input, the city has contracted for a new program manager to oversee the project.
There’s no evidence cheaper project alternatives really exist. If they did, competent contractors offering those solutions would have participated in the city’s design-build bid process. Continuing to operate the existing plant without progress toward a new facility will result in public funds being paid out for heavy fines levied by the Regional Water Board instead of being used to build a new WRF for Morro Bay’s water security needs.
Morro Bay’s WRF project is progressing toward a critical phase in which the City Council and residents need to make decisions that will affect the community’s future. Delaying the project or building a treatment plant without water reclamation and reuse will only increase the project cost through inflation and disqualification for low-interest loans and grants.
At this point, the community doesn’t know the final cost of the project and the effect on monthly sewer rates. Groups opposing the city’s project are soliciting utility customers to sign written protests for any rate increase to fund the WRF before actual cost data is made public. I intend to withhold judgment on a rate increase to pay for the WRF until those numbers are available and I urge my fellow residents to do the same. Once we know how much the project will increase sewer rates, I will carefully consider the potential cost of delay against the benefits of moving forward.
We need only look to the high price Los Osos residents are paying for their wastewater solution after 35 years of conflict and delays as an example our community should avoid.
David Betonte is a Morro Bay resident and utility customer.