PERC'S New Technology for Wastewater Treatment to be Considered
by Jack McCurdy
Synopsis: The Morro Bay City Council and Cayucos Sanitary District have agreed to examine PERC Water's proposed design for a new jointly-owned and operated wastewater treatment plant after months of adamant opposition to considering PERC Water's advanced technology that promises to be cheaper to build and operate and would provide recycled water that could save residents on water and sewer rates.
After several months of adamant opposition, the Morro Bay City Council and Cayucos Sanitary District board have reversed course and apparently are going to investigate an alternative design for their planned new wastewater treatment plant.
That alternative design, its advocates maintain, will use the most up-to-date technology, cost less to build, be cheaper to operate, offer lower sewer rates and be cleaner. It also has the capability of producing recycled water that can be used for replenishing aquifers that serve the city's largely-depleted wells and for outdoor irrigation, thereby saving Morro Bay taxpayers on the rising cost of importing state water.
That design also would, its supporters say, require a smaller plant, freeing up land at the present plant site for other uses and likely produce financial gain for the city.
The current plant is discharging an estimated 1.5 million gallons of treated water into the ocean daily, and the new plant now being planned would likely do much the same. Most of that same water could be recycled by a plant using new technology to save taxpayers' money, water in Morro Bay and a resource in dwindling supply statewide.
The alternative design is being proposed by PERC Water, which emerged on the scene in early March at a community meeting in Morro Bay, and, among other things, has said it could cut the projected $28 million cost of the new plant by $10 million. It also has gained favor by promising to hire city staff to operate the plant, rather than bring in outsiders.
The plant design now being developed would use what is called an oxidation ditch--a technical name for an open sewage pool, as now exists at the plant--from which waste solids oxidize into the air, producing odors that can drift away from the plant. By contrast, PERC Water says its design would use "membrane bioreactors" (MBR) in a process that is completely enclosed, giving off virtually no odors.
Robert Enns, chair of the Cayucos board, noted at one point, "We voted for the oxidation ditch in September, 2009, but we were not aware of MBR."
As far as the recycled water that a PERC Water plant could produce--and apparently could not by the conventional design now being developed--it is so clean that "you can spray it on kids and don't have to wash it off," Johan Perslow, the chairman and chief executive officer of PERC Water, said, meaning, he later clarified, that, for instance, if youngsters were out on an athletic field and the sprinklers came on and sprayed them with the recycled waste water, no harm would come to them. That is because, he added, "the recycled water is Class A+ unrestricted effluent, so it can be applied to open spaces, athletic fields, golf courses parks and so forth."
Perslow made the comment about the water coming in contract with youngsters when speaking to the Council and Cayucos board, which make up the Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) board that owns and operates the wastewater treatment plant shared by the two communities, at its June 16 meeting.
At that meeting, the JPA board unanimously requested that PERC Water provide what is called a "customized design report" on its ideas for a new plant and that an independent engineering firm evaluate and compare it to the traditional design now being developed by Montgomery, Watson and Harza Engineers (MWH) for the JPA.
The action was a major breakthrough, ending months of debate and loggerhead over whether to consider PERC Water's advanced design of a new plant while already having contracted with MWH to design a plant using conventional technology and lacking the cost guarantees that PERC Water has promised over the 30- to 35-year lifetime of the plant.
But some uncertainty remains: the city's engineering staff, which operates the plant, located on the shore of Estero Bay in Morro Bay, expressed adamant opposition to consideration of the PERC Water concepts on June 16 when the board voted to look at the PERC Water alternative. Still, the staff also was directed to "engage with PERC Water" to produce the proposal for evaluation and comparison to the MWH design.
Whether staff's opposition may affect or bog down the review and evaluation process ordered by the board remains to be seen.
The JPA board's decision to consider PERC Water as a possible contractor to not only build but possibly design, operate and finance the new plant came after three and a half hours of debate, shifting sentiment among board members and even a failed motion similar to the one that eventually passed, numerous comments by residents strongly supporting PERC Water, PERC Water agreeing to waive its cost of $75,000 to prepare the custom design study, MWH defending its design and plans and the offer by the engineering firm to conduct a comparative study of the two designs.
The meeting started off with a presentation by Dylan Wade, the city's utilities/capital projects manager, comparing the operational methods of PERC Water, which designs, bids, builds and can even finance such plants, and MWH, which only designs and builds. Mike Foster, a member of the Cayucos board, asked Wade, "What delivers the best value for ratepayers?" Wade answered, "It is hard to get an apples to apples comparison."
Foster then asked, "Why is this information being presented now? It should have been the first thing (in the board's discussion of the two alternatives). I am disappointed in the process."
Wade went on to say that "our (staff) recommendation is that you (board) don't pursue" investigation the the PERC Water design. "Stay on the path you are proceeding on. Stick with the project you are currently pursuing.
Rob Livick, the public services director, however, suggested hiring a consultant "to evaluate the options."
At a previous board meeting on June 10, where the board postponed further discussion to June 16, mayor Janice Peters asked Steve Hyland of MWH if he "could give us a certainty of cost" for developing the new plant. "On design, build, operate, we can't. We can estimate the construction cost. It may be high, may be low. It is not a guarantee." Cullen of PERC Water then followed, "How do we guarantee cost? Because we have done it before. Experience allows us to do that. Any cost overruns are our risk."
At that earlier meeting, Foster made a lengthy presentation on the relative merits of the two plans and concluded there are numerous risks with the MWH approach, including, he said, cost overruns, the possible need to make capital improvements during the life of the plant that the JPA would have to pay for, higher interest rates on money borrowed for MWH to build the plant in three or four years whereas PERC Water rates would be set now if it were awarded the contract, and the risk that the California Coastal Commission might well reject the MWH or any plan that does not include recycling of wastewater.
At the subsequent meeting, after back and forth among board and staff, Zenn said the board "needs to look at costs, what it will cost to build and operate" a new plant.
Randy Rominger, regional executive for Kitchell CEM, then stepped to the microphone and said his firm, which he says has managed many wastewater plant developments, would conduct a "peer review" of MWH and PERC Water for $20,000 to $30,000. He said it could be done in as little as three weeks, depending on how soon PERC Water could provide its comprehensive design report or the equivalent information could be obtained by Kitchell.
Peters, who has been one of the staunchest opponents of considering PERC Water as an alternative, made a motion to authorize the review at a cost not to exceed $25,000, which was approved.
Council member Noah Smukler then moved to "direct staff and the city attorney to evaluate the PERC Water design report."
Council member Rick Grantham followed with these comments: "We are going to pay for all water put in the ocean. We can't replenish our aquifers. The oxidation ditch is the best. We have been working on this (new plant) a long time. I do want reclamation but what are we going to do with it? (PERC Water's concept) is not new technology. There will be another technology in the future. There are so many hoops to jump through with so little staff to do it. The regional (water quality control) board may not be willing to allow us to take more time (to change from MWH to PERC Water)."
Council member Betty Winholtz countered that "we have three years to figure out how to use the (recycled) water. I hope you (board members) vote the way the community wants you to vote. So they will have a $40 (monthly sewer) rate, instead of an $80 rate." Smukler added, "If we can have a cheaper system, why not?"
Smukler's motion failed.
"This is not all about price and the environment," Grantham said. "We can't recharge our wells because of the geography. The (recycled) water (put into the aquifers) will just rise to the surface."
Bruce Keogh, the city's wastewater division manager, said "the level of effort (for the new plant project) is my concern. My plate is really, really full. I am overwhelmed."
But Smukler then made another motion to "direct the staff to engage with PERC Water to develop the most accurate proposal in a timely fashion" to meet the need for information in the Kitchell comparative evaluation of the MWH and PERC Water approaches. It passed on a unanimous vote of Council and Cayucos board members.
However, it was left unclear how soon that PERC Water proposal and evaluation will be completed.
See also: A Tale of Two Cities' Wastewater Treatment Plant Projects
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