Synopsis: The November, 2010, Journal article Mystery in Morro Bay invited readers to explore unanswered questions that had arisen in connection with a proposed project that would completely change the face of Morro Bay—a "green university" to be built on power plant property. Morro Bay residents have offered a theory on a possible connection between the proposed development and the seemingly-inexplicable push by local government to keep the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) at its current location. The heart of the matter, the residents theorize, may be the water supply needed to allow the development project to proceed.
In 2009, Westpac Energy Group, now known as Ecobaun, came to Morro Bay with detailed plans for a huge development project centered on power plant property. The firm has been alleged to have ties to another Westpac—one of Australia and New Zealand's largest commercial and institutional banks. That firm owns Westpac Investments LLC, which is based in San Luis Obispo
The development, a green university, would, according to its would-be developers, be dedicated to "research, innovation and education for regional and global power sources." The plans presented were detailed and extensive, and it was noted that thousands of people would work at and visit the completed facilities every day.
Since Mystery in Morro Bay was published, Ecobaun has removed the information cited by the article from its website. However, the project is still listed on the firm's Projects page and is described in the "vision book" that remains online. Page 12 of the book shows an aerial view of the proposed project and clearly illustrates its size.
Given the number of people that the development would serve, a large, reliable water supply would be necessary. Where, the residents ask, would that come from?
Development, Water Supplies, and California Law
Water-Starved California Slows Development, A 2008 New York Times article by Jennifer Steinhauer, discusses impacts of a state law that requires developers to prove they have enough water to support their proposed projects. According to Steinhauer, "The 2001 state water law, which took effect in 2002, requires developers to prove that new projects have a plan for providing at least 20 years' worth of water before local water authorities can sign off on them. With the recent problems, more and more local governments are unable to simply approve projects."
Morro Bay is known to have a serious water supply problem. As discussed in the March, 2010 Journal article, Morro Bay's Precarious Water
Supply, "The recently-announced state water cutbacks came as a wakeup call to Morro Bay residents, many of whom had probably never suspected that their water supply was at risk."
State water is not guaranteed and could be cut back at any time. Problems with Morro Bay city wells and limitations imposed on the amount of water that can be taken from the aquifers have strained the city's ability to supply enough water for the current number of residents and visitors. Desalination can and is used when necessary, but the process is very expensive.
So, how could Ecobaun prove the availability of a 20-year water supply sufficient to meet the needs of the thousands of people who would work at and visit the green university every day? How could they provide that water at a reasonable cost?
There are underground streams that run under the power plant property. Recently Morro Bay approved a permit for Morro Bay Mutual Water, a PG&E affiliate, to drill a new well on that property. The stated purpose was to replace an existing well.
The California Coastal Commission (CCC) intervened and stopped that project, pointing out the fact that private wells are forbidden within city limits. If there were plans to use the new well to help supply some of the water needed for development of the green university, those plans appear to have been stymied.
What other sources might the developer access? According to the residents' theory, the answer may be that developers plan to use a significant amount of reclaimed water from wastewater treatment facilities to meet the state's 20-year-water-supply requirement.
The Morro Bay/Cayucos WWTP—Location, Location, Location
According to the residents' theory, reclaimed water could be an essential, and even the major component of the water supply needed to allow the green university development to proceed. The residents assert that the developers may plan to use reclaimed wastewater from two sources—onsite treatment facilities and the Morro Bay-Cayucos WWTP.
Of course, the residents note, the water to be reclaimed at onsite facilities would have to come from somewhere, perhaps a desalination plant. Although desalination is expensive, recycling the water would hold costs down.
With the Morro Bay-Cayucos WWTP essentially next door, the developers might be able to make a case for being allowed to buy the treated effluent to supplement their water supply. Adding it to the reclaimed water from their own wastewater processing facility, the developers could demonstrate that they had a good supply of water for irrigating green areas and for groundwater recharge to help supply onsite wells.
However, the residents believe, if Morro Bay and Cayucos officials and staff lose their fight to keep their WWTP at their preferred location. it is highly unlikely that the green university would be allowed to build its own wastewater treatment facilities right next door. That facility too would likely be in a tsunami zone.
That would leave the green university dependent on an inland Morro Bay-Cayucos WWTP, possibly a significant distance away, to process its sewage, and to serve as a source of reclaimed water. If they had approved the development, residents might not have a problem with sharing their WWTP, so long as developers paid for the necessary upgrades to the plant and to the collection infrastructure.
However, convincing the residents of water-starved Morro Bay that the developers should be allowed to buy all or most of WWTP's treated effluent might be more difficult – unless they were willing to pay enough to offset the town's costs of acquiring more water from other sources..
Water Supply and Cost Impacts on Morro Bay Residents
Residents and local farmers have long recommended that the treated water from the new WWTP be sold to local farmers for use in irrigating their crops. If that were done, the aquifers that supply Morro Bay city wells would be recharged upstream of those wells, and the current residents of Morro Bay would benefit. Residents' dependence on unreliable and expensive State water would be reduced; the wells would provide a more reliable, sustainable water supply at lower cost.
However, if the treated water were sold to the "green university." any aquifer recharging that occurred would be downstream of the City wells, and arguably the only ones who would benefit in terms of water supply and water costs would be the green university developers and the users of their facilities.
It appears unlikely that Morro Bay residents would allow reclaimed water from a new inland plant to be transported back to the coastline, and dedicated to supporting a huge development that they have not approved, or even been asked to approve—particularly when that water could be put to another use that might help ensure a less costly, more reliable water supply for those residents.
The August, 2010 Journal article, Growth Through Development, states the viewpoint that, "Insufficiently-controlled development has left Morro Bay and neighboring communities with depleted public water supplies, crumbling infrastructure, and reduced public services. It has been shown that despite myths perpetuated by developers, revenues generated by development are less than the costs of servicing it."
The point might be made that selling the treated water from the new WWTP to developers, rather than using it recharge the aquifers that supply City wells would essentially amount to another example of residents subsidizing development.
City and CSD Insistence on Keeping the WWTP at the Current Site
Are some city officials and/or staff working with green university developers to help ensure a supply of reclaimed water for the facility? There is no evidence to indicate that is the case.
Their behavior is, however, something of a mystery to residents who question the official reasons given for the dogged insistence on keeping the plant at a site that lies in a tsunami zone and flood plain, in a visitor-serving area, and over Chumash and Salinan burial and archaeological sites. The WWTP location favored by the city and the CSD has been essentially rejected by the CCC, which recently took over the permitting process.
After the CCC's action, one of the first reactions of the city and the CSD was to hire a lobbyist to attempt to sway the opinion of the Coastal Commission. A second was to state that they are considering going to a "Plan B" project that would not require a coastal development permit, thus cutting the CCC out of the equation.
Whether the city and the CSD would be allowed to do that is questionable. However, some residents believe the fact that they have suggested it signals their determination and, as one resident put it, "desperation." to keep the WWTP in their preferred location.
That determination also surfaced in an April 11 Tribune article, Morro Bay Faces Tough Decision Over Sewer Plant. In that article, Morro Bay Mayor Bill Yates is quoted as saying, "Moving the treatment plant will cost tens of millions of dollars more, and residents have been adamant that they want costs kept down." Residents have pointed out that there are no reliable studies of any kind that support such a statement, and that the conversion of the current beachfront site to low-impact visitor-serving uses could generate a considerable amount of money to offset any costs associated with moving the plant.
Residents also point out that the mayor's alleged concern regarding costs seems rather sudden, and suggest that previous actions taken by the city and the CSD do not seem to indicate similar concerns. Those actions include:
- Failure to work cooperatively with the CCC before any significant work was done on the WWTP project, so that to ensure that CCC concerns would be addressed and rework would be minimized.
- Awarding of the design contract to the highest, not the lowest, bidder among five qualified firms.
- Failure to develop and gain approval of the project's environmental impact report (EIR) before beginning design work. (The DEIR , which cost $377,000, will have to be redone.)
- Failure to give serious consideration to PERC Water, which said it could build a better plant for much less, at a guaranteed cost, and essentially shutting out PERC water by refusing to sign non-disclosure agreements to provide basic protection for PERC's intellectual property rights, and by failing to include the PERC option in the DEIR.
Many Questions Remain Unanswered
What may be behind the actions of Morro Bay and Cayucos officials and staff is known only to those involved. Residents can only theorize the motives behind the campaign to keep the WWTP in a location that seems, to many residents and to the CCC, to be completely unsuitable.
In addition to the residents' theory discussed here, residents had suggested that there may be illegal infrastructure under the ground that local officials and staff do not want discovered. There is no evidence to prove that either theory is correct—or incorrect.
Whether or not there is any connection between the actions of local government and the proposed green university development remains a subject of speculation. However, the theory brought forward by residents in response to Mystery in Morro Bay provides some interesting food for thought.