Synopsis: Plans for a $34 million new wastewater treatment plant to be built jointly by Morro Bay and Cayucos were opposed by the Morro Bay city Planning Commission, primarily over what the Commission found to be faulty design, location and technology, and recommended the City Council do the same.
Marking a major milestone in the six-year development of a new wastewater treatment plant for Morro Bay and Cayucos, the Morro Bay City Planning Commission has rejected the design, location, and technology of the proposed $34 million project and called for a search for alternative sites before any further decisions on a new plant are made by the City Council, which is scheduled to act on those recommendations on January 11.
The Planning Commission voted unanimously to ask the Council not to certify the environmental impact report (EIR) on the project after spending four-and-a-half hours reviewing the draft EIR and rejecting its conclusion that building the proposed new plant next door to the present one at 160 Atascadero Road on Estero Bay is the best and only option to consider. The Commission's rejection of the proposed project is likely to carry weight when the matter is considered by the California Coastal Commission, according to informed sources.
If the City Council ignores the Planning Commission and certifies the EIR, an appeal to the Coastal Commission by some residents or organizations is considered certain. And since the Coastal Commission's own staff has already rejected the EIR and the project it recommends, the new plant proposed by Morro Bay and Cayucos seems to stand little chance of being approved by the Coastal Commission, which has final authority, unless an adverse decision is challenged in court.
The Planning Commission's main objection at its Dec. 20 meeting was that alternative sites for the new plant were not examined for comparison with the one that was picked.
The Coastal Commission staff reached the same conclusion earlier and also called for a new EIR, a project design that would produce huge amounts of purified water for use in reviving city ground wells, studies of the potential to reclaim 100% of the wastewater produced, location of a new plant out of the 100-year-flood plain, selection of a site that would not disrupt the Native American burial grounds beneath that area, a larger capacity plant that could handle increases in effluent flow from community growth and examination of sites away from the coastal viewshed.
The EIR said the purpose of an alternative analysis is to identify alternatives that "substantially alter any significant effects of the project." But since the EIR found that the "proposed project would not result in any significant impacts," alternatives need not be considered.
And yet it did consider one on its own and then reviewed in a cursory way seven alternative sites suggested by the Surfrider Foundation as part of their comments on the EIR. All the alternatives were rejected by the EIR with mostly canned comments. The locations of the sites were sometimes unclear in the EIR.
"None of us thought this was the best project," commissioner Gerald Luhr said at the meeting. "We are shocked that there are no alternatives (in the EIR)," commissioner Michael Lucas said. "When I read the EIR, I wanted to know the alternatives."
The meeting was marked by city attorney Rob Schultz approaching the podium from the audience and suggesting that the commissioners stick to "questions, not comments" and move ahead. "This isn't a government hearing where you question staff and back and forth," he said.
But it didn't faze the Commission. "That's why I wanted a workshop," John Diodati, who was chairing the meeting, said, referring to the greater opportunity for questions and answers by all interested parties at workshops.
"I differ with you," Lucas told Schultz. "We're talking about specific things in the EIR. We need to flush these things out.”
"Then flush it out," Schultz said.
"We're just trying to wrap our heads around it," Diodati added. "And trying to get through this in one meeting. It's going to take time to do it right for the community."
"We aren't the applicant," Luhr said. "We are not trying to put anybody on the spot." The applicant for approval of the plan to build a new wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) is the the Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) board, composed of the Morro Bay City Council and the Cayucos Sanitary District board, which own and operate the plant jointly. The Planning Commission advises but is independent from the City Council.
"Go ahead and continue on," Schultz said and withdrew.
Luhr asked staff if "we should make suiggestions or send it to the Council (with a no certification recommendation) and have them overrule it?"
Rob Livick, the city's public services director, asked in return, "Do you support the (proposed) site?"
Diodoti responded that "a reasonable site was not chosen. It is not typical. We need to go back to screening of sites."
"It is tortuous rationality (to think) that this (new plant site) is considered acceptable," Lucas said.
Luhr said, "The EIR didn't consider cost benefit. We need to back off and take a broader look at other sites as a community. And if we ask for 30-year investment, do we think it is worth it?" He said he would "also like to see an analysis of alternative energy solutions for powering the plant to get (little or) no greenhouse emissions. It (alternative energy to power the plant) is not even discussed. The city should lead and not trail on technology."
"We need a new project, start over, rather than analyze impacts in an EIR that is wrong," Diodoti said
Schultz returned to the podium and said, "They (alternatives) ought to be compared to the proposed project. If we go look at alternatives, what are we comparing them to? The present (proposed) site?"
"That way we accept the baseline (proposed plant) as valid," Lucas said, which is unacceptable because it is "flawed."
Diodoti suggested approving eight criteria to use in evaluating alternative sites for the plant and a ninth was added. They are:
—Flood plain impacts
—Greenhouse gas impacts (especially new lift stations and the loss of on-site composting)
—Ability to accommodate build-out
Before proceeding further, commissioners agreed, the City should "develop a screening of viable sites within and outside of city limits" and "evaluate each site comparatively on the nine (criteria) outlined."
Commissioners also held that the proposed project "constitutes a new project," not an upgrade of the old plant, as it had been designated by the city of Morro Bay, which oversaw preparation of the EIR, and, therefore, use of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to guide the process to select the proposed site "was inadequate."
In addition, the Commission decided to send a letter to the Regional Water Quality Control Board requesting a time extension of the deadline for developing and building a new plant by March, 2014, to provide more time to conduct the analysis of additional sites. Development of the EIR has already taken two-and-a-half years.
The Planning Commission meeting also marked the first public discussion of the final EIR, all the comments on the draft EIR released on September 20 and the responses to those comments by ESA, which is the EIR contractor. Included in its responses is ESA's lengthy and detailed defense against the scathing criticisms of the Coastal Commission staff, which called for a new and revised EIR.
ESA's final EIR responses also addressed comments submitted earlier by members of the public, environmental organizations—Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation and National Resources Defense Council—and other governmental agencies such as the Coastal Commission staff, Regional Water Quality Control Board and the county Air Pollution Control District.
All the public and environmental organizations comments were in opposition to the proposed project.
Former Council member, Betty Winholtz, who lost on November 2 in her bid to become mayor of Morro Bay, asked several questions about the EIR process, including when the Cayucos Sanitary District Board will act upon the EIR. Diodati added that "Cayucos has had no input" in the development of the EIR.
Livick said Cayucos is required to act on the EIR once the City does.
Winholtz said the EIR is "incomplete" and urged the Planning Commission not to recomment the Council certify it.
The main issue raised in the EIR comments was the absence of alternatives to the one proposed by the JPA city board and the EIR.
As the EIR described it, Coastal Commission staff called for a completely revised EIR 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 EIR response was that in the context of CEQA, the purpose of an Alternatives Analysis is to identify alternatives that “substantially alter any significant effects of the project . . . The draft EIR concludes that the proposed project would not result in any significant impacts." In other words, since it was determined that the proposed plant near the present one would have no significant impacts, there was no obligation to look at alternatives.
However, the EIR noted, one off-site alternative was evaluated, on Teresa Road near the intersection of Quintana Road and South Bay Boulevard. It would share some of the sewage treatment functions with the old, existing plant, which would be rehabilitated and continue to operate. But that plan was not recommended because it "would introduce several new potentially significant impacts," including the release of odors in a residential area. That assumes it would contain an open oxidation ditch, which other plant designs, such as the one PERC Water had suggested, would not use, virtually eliminating the release of odors.
Here are condensed Coastal Commission staff comments on the EIR and ESA responses:
Commission staff: the EIR must provide information about alternative sites that are are not within the 100-year flood plain. The city's Local Coastal Plan (LCP, required and overseen by the Coastal Commission) prohibits all new development in the 100-year floodplain, except for flood control projects, agricultural uses, and off-setting improvements.
EIR: The proposed project provides substantial benefit by allowing for the treatment plant to be elevated above flood waters. The proposed project would remove the treatment plant from the 100-year flood plain. (The EIR equates "removal" of the plant from the flood plain with increasing the elevation of the plant from approximately 16 feet to about 23 feet.)
Commission staff: The comment states no additional infrastructure is proposed and the project does not include any planning for future infrastructure that could be used to transport the water away from the new plant (such as for farm irrigation use).
EIR: The proposed project includes a truck filling station to accommodate the beneficial reuse of recycled water at a small scale. The proposed project does not include a recycled water distribution system.
Commission staff: The draft EIR alternatives analysis should include discussion of the use of reclaimed water and the benefits of eliminating the ocean outfall component of wastewater treatment, including measures necessary to eliminate the outfall if other uses for the reclaimed water make it obsolete.
EIR: The proposed project does not include a recycled water distribution system. However, the proposed project does not preclude future development of a recycled water system . . . However, at this time, to obtain water quality objectives, the proposed project is planned to upgrade treatment capabilities.
Commission staff: The draft EIR must provide details about the quantity of water that would be reclaimed, the timeline for when reclaimed water will be available, and the constraints associated with transporting the water off-site using trucks and the filling station.
EIR: The proposed project does not include a recycled water distribution system.The proposed project includes a truck filling station to accommodate the beneficial reuse of recycled water at a small scale . . . The proposed project evaluates the operational impact of up to 10 water truck trips per week.
Commission staff: The Draft EIR’s discussion of project alternatives must provide more details on significant opportunities to provide reclaimed water as required by the LCP. Project alternatives should provide details on increased quantities of reclaimed water, including the potential to reclaim 100% of the wastewater produced.
EIR: The proposed project does not include a recycled water distribution system. Impacts associated with regional distribution and use of recycled water are not within the scope of this project and Draft EIR.
Commission staff: Although the DEiR refers to this project as an upgrade to the WWTP, it is in fact a complete replacement of the facility. 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.
EIR: The City disagrees that the proposed project constitutes construction of an entirely new treatment plant in a new location. The purpose of the project as noted in the Draft EIR is to upgrade treatment capabilities to meet discharge permit water quality requirements. The objective of the project originally envisioned by Morro Bay and Cayucos is to comply with Regional Water Quality Control Board permit requirements by upgrading the level of treatment provided by the WWTP at the existing location.
Commission staff: LCP Policy 5.03 does not apply to the proposed project because the project would involve the construction of a new WWTP. The Draft EIR needs to be clear that a new replacement WWTP is not the same as maintaining the existing plant and that LCP Policy 5.03 should not be used as a reason for siting the proposed project at the current location.
EIR: The City disagrees that the proposed project constitutes construction of an entirely new treatment plant in a new location. The WWTP and outfall are integrated facilities and not necessarily components to be separated. Together these facilities are considered coastal dependent.
Commission staff: The Draft EIR must evaluate the WWTP as a new development in the tsunami inundation area and provide the information necessary to evaluate the project for consistency with the LCP . . . which requires new development to be located to minimize risks to life and property in relation to tsunami threats.
EIR: The City disagrees that the proposed project constitutes construction of an entirely new treatment plant in a new location.
Commission staff: The Draft EIR should discuss project impacts as a result of sea level rise conditions and determine whether future sea level rise would put the WWTP in danger from erosion.
EIR: The Draft EIR references estimates of sea level rise and concludes that the plant is sufficiently elevated to be protected from inundation resulting from a modest rise in mean sea level of 23 inches in the next century. The Draft EIR concludes that the risk of inundation due to sea level rise is speculative.
Commission staff: Construction and operation of the proposed project at the current WWTP location would impact the surrounding public access areas and recreational resources.
EIR: The City disagrees that the proposed project constitutes construction of an entirely new treatment plant in a new location. The Draft EIR concludes that the replacement of the existing facility with upgraded facilities would not adversely affect the surrounding land uses
At the meeting, Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, told the Commission that "we find the Draft EIR so deficient that we are unable to fully review it or submit substantial comments on the project's presumed impacts and proposed mitigations."
A main problem is that the Draft EIR "seems to be unaware that the proposed project constitutes a new costal development" and, therefore, the frequent citations from the Coastal Land Use Policy and the General Plan are "frequently irrelevant and do not apply," he said. It also ignores a December 8, 2008, letter from the Coastal Commission staff recommending the JPA "identify a suite of potential beneficial uses for this treated water along with any additional infrastructure and processes that would be needed to reclaim this potential source of water relative to various alternative beneficial uses."
The result is numerous inconsistencies with CEQA and Morro Bay's Local Coastal Plan, he said, adding that the Chapter had urged the JPA long ago to consult with the Coastal Commission staff to avoid needless delays in the process but that did not happen and delays now are unavoidable.
The San Luis Obispo chapter of the Surfrider Foundation made many of the same points and also noted that "presumably there were alternative locations investigated in this report, but they are not mentioned in the draft EIR, despite the CEQA requirement that the 'EIR should also identify any alternatives that were considered by the lead agency but were rejected as infeasible . . . These sites should be considered and analyzed in a revised EIR." Such alternatives were mentioned by an ESA staff member at a EIR workshop in October but were not included in the EIR.
The Surfrider comments listed recommended sites for review as possible locations for the new plant:
—Whale Rock Reservoir viciinity in Cayucos.
—Chevon oil facility near the Morro Bay and Cayucos border at Highway 1.
—Seventeen acres on Highway 41 located 1.75 miles east of Highway 1.
—Chorro Valley site reviewed in the EIR.
—The 10-acre Hayashi and 12-acre Giannini properties one-half mile east of Highway 1.
—The Morro Bay Power Plant property.
—The old PG&E tank farm plus adjacent city property, both located .66 miles northeast of the present WWTP.