Synopsis: A decision on what kind of a new Morro Bay/Cayucos wastewater treatment plant will be built and where it will be located appears headed for the California Coastal Commission, whose staff has flatly rejected the plan developed by MWH and supported by the city of Morro Bay and the Cayucos Sanitary District board. After six years of apparently futile planning, the final local say on the multimillion dollar sewage plant is expected by January 10.
Six years of planning a new wastewater treatment plant has run into what appears to be a brick wall with a devastating California Coastal Commission staff evaluation of the design plan that has been developed to date. How Morro Bay and Cayucos deals with the rejection will likely play out over the next month and into early January. A final decision is expected on January 10 by the Morro Bay City Council.
It boils down to two alternatives facing the Joint Powers Agreement board (composed of the Morro Bay City Council and the Cayucos Sanitary District board, which operate the sewage plant together and must build a new one):
(1) start all over and design a plant that the Coastal Commission, which has direct jurisdiction over such projects in the coastal zone, will require, virtually certain to be based on its staff's recommendations. Or
(2) submit the design that has been developed so far and evaluated in the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR)--which the Commission staff has found to be completely inadequate--to the Commission itself and have the Commission tell Morro Bay and Cayucos what to do.
It looks like that decision is headed directly to the Commission, based on what came out of the Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) board meeting on November 18—the board's first meeting after the Commission staff submitted its report on the DEIR to the JPA board, a copy of which the Slo Coast Journal posted exclusively on November 17. At that November 18 meeting, the staff of the Morro Bay Council, which has primary authority over the DEIR, indicated the Coastal Commission staff's report would not interrupt the process leading to the final decision by the Council on January 10. In short, continue with the plan that has been developed over the last six years, regardless of the Coastal Commission's objections.
"We may disagree with the (Commisson) staff," Rob Livick, city public services director, told the board. "That (comments on the DEIR) was the (Commission) staff, not the Commission." "It (the DEIR) only goes to the Commission on appeal," he added, indicating the city is going to try to make its own decision on what kind of plant is in the future for Morro Bay and Cayucos.
Why should residents care? Because a great deal is at stake for sewer rate payers and taxpayers in the two communities. Those rates, which could reach the hundreds of dollars a month per ratepayer once the plant is built, now projected for 2014, may vary widely depending on the design and contractor chosen to build the new plant.
Also, a technologically-advanced new sewage plant is expected to be able to produce significant amounts of purified water that could be used to replenish the city's ground wells and ensure a future supply of water at a reasonable cost, resulting in major savings and reliability of its water supply for Morro Bay water customers, compared to the expense and uncertainty of the state water project, which the city now depends on. Those crucial issues are exactly what a final local decision by the Morro Bay Council and, ultimately, the Coastal Commission will determine.
The Coastal Commission staff comments made clear that the plant design that has been developed thus far by JPA board contractors fails to meet those standards for producing more and better drinking water.
Here is where the decision on the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) is headed this month and into January:
—On December 9, the Coastal Commission staff comments virtually rejecting the DEIR and the WWTP design are scheduled to be on the JPA board's meeting agenda. But Dennis Delzeit, contract project manager of the WWTP project, said the board will not review the DEIR itself or comments about it. Instead, the board will consider suspending the contract with MWH for design of a new plant and payments to MWH for that purpose—until the Coastal Commission makes a final decision on a new plant.
—On December 20, the city Planning Commission, which reviewed the DEIR in October and was highly critical of it in terms of complying with the California Environmental Quality Act's requirements for reviewing a range of alternatives and locations for the plant, is scheduled to review all comments—including the Coastal Commission staff's—on the DEIR. The Planning Commission is also scheduled to vote on whether the DEIR should be certified by the Council. This will come after ESA, the contractor that prepared the DEIR, which the Coastal Commission staff found to be inadequate, prepares responses to the DEIR comments from members of the Planning Commission, the Coastal Commission staff and members of the public. The meeting had been scheduled for December 9, but the Coastal Commission staff requested it be delayed.
—On January 10, the City Council is scheduled to decide if the DEIR is to be certified as acceptable for the proposed project plan and also act on a Conditional Use Permit and Coastal Permit, which are both required for the project to be constructed. The Coastal Commission would have final authority to approve those permits, if the Council's approval of them is appealed to the Commission. If the Council approves a new plant as designed thus far by MWH, an appeal is considered to be certain because of opposition by some residents and environmental organizations.
The Coastal Commission staff has called for a completely new design of the plant and has ruled out the current plan to locate the project on the shore of Estero Bay next to the existing old, outmoded facility.
In its comments on the DEIR, the Commission staff called for a completely revised DEIR to include possible alternative sites for the new plant and with much greater operational capabilities. An important feature strongly advocated by the staff would enable a new plant to produce huge amounts of processed purified water for use in reviving city ground wells that "would help the city meet its water supply needs and ensure water . . . is available . . . if/when state water is restricted or unavailable."
The report requests "that the DEIR be appropriately revised, updated and recirculated for comment," and it should evaluate "feasible alternatives for site locations that can avoid significant hazards and important coastal resource impacts." Those impacts refer mainly to dumping inadequately treated sewage by the present and possible new plant into Estero Bay, thereby destroying marine life. The DEIR also should review "alternative designs that incorporate the technology and infrastructure necessary to accommodate both wastewater flows at buildout as well as reuse of reclaimed water," the Commission staff report said.
The start-all-over mandate seems likely to open the door for PERC Water to re-enter the picture as a possible designer-builder-operator of a new plant. The company has proposed a new plant that would be the most technologically advanced, could produce the highest quality recycled water in largest volume and would cost about $10 million less than the plant proposed by MWH, the current design contractor. In the past, PERC Water has estimated its cost at about $20 million to build a new plant, but the project's plans may have been expanded, so PERC Water's cost estimate may be somewhat higher now. MWH's estimate is approximately $34 million to build a new plant. But PERC Water says its price would be fixed while MWH's isn't.
However, PERC Water withdrew from consideration in October.
The 12-page report by the Commission staff still has not been made public by the City, but a copy submitted by that staff to the city of Morro Bay and the Cayucos Sanitary District was obtained by the Slo Coast Journal (Commission Staff Report).
For more than a year, some residents have been urging the JPA board to do precisely what the Coastal Commission staff called for: get rid of the present outmoded plant design, which MWH has developed and which the Commission staff report ripped apart in its comments on the EIR.
Facing the just-elected new members of the Council will be decisions on dealing with:
(1) what the Commission staff described as a defective EIR,
(2) the plant design it rejected,
(3) the contractors already hired to develop the project over the past six years and
(4) $333,000 in possibly wasted money on the current design plans for a new plant.
Those members are mayor Bill Yates and Council members Nancy Johnson and George Leage, who were elected on November 2, final, official results showed. They are scheduled to be sworn in at 6 p.m. on December 8 in the Vets Hall.
Yates and Leage have been openly critical of deviating from the present MWH sewer plant plans and design that were castigated by the Coastal Commission staff. They have also been dismissive of PERC Water as an alternative plant designer and builder.
The Coastal Commission staff report, dated November 12, began by stating that "there are several fundamental problems with the project as it is currently proposed that will require substantial modification before it can be found LCP (Morro Bay's Local Coastal Plan) and Coastal Act consistent."
Lacking consistency with those two major regulatory documents, virtually no project has a chance of being approved by the Coastal Commission, which is necessary for the plant to be built.
One of the fundamental areas of inconsistency, the report said, is that the JPA's "proposed preferred site location appears to be inappropriate for the development. . . The concept of locating a major public works infrastructure in an area that is subject to multiple significant hazards is not consistent with the hazards policies of the LCP. Further, the location is directly adjacent to the shoreline in a visually sensitive area where such a development could frustrate LCP and Coastal Act public recreational access and visitor-serving objectives and lead to adverse public viewshed impacts."
The preferred site is in "a high hazard area," the report said,"because it is located within the 100-year flood plain of Morro Creek, in a tsunami-inundation area, approximately 800 feet from the current shoreline, and in an area that is susceptible to liquefaction due to underlying soil types."
The report noted that the city's LCP "describes the risk of flooding within the City and prohibits development in the 100-year flood plain" and "identifies the location of the WWTYP in the flood plain as one of the city's flooding problems."
Therefore, the "DEIR must provide information about alternative sites that are are not within the 100-year flood plain," it said.
At that site, it also would conflict with "public recreational access and visitor-serving uses, and important public viewsheds.
In addition, that site "is located on a Native American burial ground, which, as required by the LCP, must be avoided where feasible." It is in "close proximity to numerous documented archeological sites and is located within a burial ground of the Salinan Tribe," and "ground development and excavation at this location appears to be inconsistent with the LCP."
The JPA plan's proposal to reduce the capacity of the new WWTP "is not consistent with the LCP policies requiring infrastructure to accommodate future growth that is planned for in the LCP," which allows for a buildout population of 12,195 in Morro Bay.
Also, "the plant should be adequately sized to handle current and future volumes of effluent originating from Morro Bay and Cayucos while protecting against intentional or accidental diversions of untreated effluent during peak and/or wet weather flows." But, "as proposed, the WWTP would not be capable of accommodating the wastewater flows that are antiicpated. . . "
The proposed plant also "does not include a plan for water reclamation that meets the expectations of the City of Morro Bay LCP, the San Luis County LCP (covering Cayucos) or recent actions of the Commission, including its recent approval of the Los Osos Waste Water Project." Under the JPA proposed project, it would "produce a large quantity of highly treated wastewater, and the vast majority of it would be disposed of through the ocean outfall into Estero Bay." This is because the water would not be treated to purified quality, and, therefore, could not be used for a wide range of purposes.
Not treating the water to the best possible quality "would not only cause unnecessary impacts on the marine environment, but it would also prevent the City and adjacent areas of the County from utilizing this freshwater source to help . . . meet the region's water supply needs."
In terms of "alternative siting and design options," the report said, "it does not appear that the DEIR provides the information necessary in this context to analyze the proposed project for consistency" with the LCP and Coastal Act. It ordered that the DEIR be revised "to address this critical deficiency."
Although the DEiR "refers to this project as an upgrade to the WWTP, it is in fact a complete replacement of the facility," the Commission staff comments said. "Therefore, in analyzing the project for consistency with the (Morro Bay) certified LCP and the Coastal Act, the DEIR must consider the project to be the development of a new WWTP."
Water reclamation should be one of the prime objectives of a new plant, and "the LCP clearly requires the City to pursue water reclamation as part of this WWTP project." But the JPA plant design provides for only "a small amount of wastewater reclamation." Reclaimed water of superior quality could be used for agricultural irrigation inside and/or outside of the district's service area, replenishment of ground water to restore the capacity of city wells and "could obviate the need for an ocean outfall" to protect the marine environment. Therefore, the benefits of reclaimed water "must be a part of the DEIR alternatives analysis." And the DEIR "must provide details about the quantity of water that would be reclaimed, the timeline for when reclaimed water would be available and the constraints associated with transporting the water. . . "
Such alternatives should address the "potential to reclaim 100% of the wastewater produced," which may require "associated pipeline infrastructure," and the DEIR "needs to identify any feasibility issues associated with such a program."
It also "must provide a detailed explanation of how storm water would be collected, filtered and treated."