Synopsis: "Plan B" suddenly emerged as a possible way to build a new Morro Bay-Cayucos wastewater treatment plant—just by upgrading the old existing plant with dubious prospects for approval by the California Coastal Commission—and Michael Foster is appointed by the Cayucos Sanitary District Board to sit in on interviews of consultants to develop studies of a new project, but Noah Smukler is given a cold shoulder by the Morro Bay City Council to do the same.
The Morro Bay City Council and the Cayucos Sanitary District board, which are under the gun to build a new joint-wastewater treatment plant, were hit with two surprises at their Joint Powers Agreement meeting last month.
One, without any notice, project manager Dennis Delzeit reported verbally—it was not on the agenda—that he is developing "Plan B" to only upgrade the current aging plant. That upgrade would replace the plan for a completely new multi-million dollar plant next to the existing plant's present location—bordering Estero Bay—that was rejected in March by the California Coastal Commission, which must approve such a new plant.
The upgrade, he said, would provide for only secondary treatment of the sewage coming into the plant and would not need a Coastal Development Permit, which the Coastal Commission requires for virtually all development in the coastal zone, including Morro Bay and Cayucos. A commission staff member said it is highly likely such a permit would be required.
Two, Delzeit came to the April 14 meeting of the council and Cayucos board with a proposal to interview consultants to provide the information and studies that the commission requested in rejecting the previous project in March, and then he would select one for submission to the council and board for their approval.
But Michael Foster, a member of the Cayucos board, and Noah Smukler, a council member, objected, arguing some members of both bodies should take part in the interviews and the selection of two or more candidates that the council and board could select from. After a round of sometimes heated debate, the Cayucos board approved Foster to sit in on the interviews as its representative, but the council refused to authorize Smukler to do the same as the council's representative.
The status of lobbyist Susan McCabe, hired on March 11 to assess the chances of the Morro Bay-Cayucos project being approved by the Coastal Commission, was also discussed at length and motions were made to end her $32,000-a-month contract. But there was no definitive vote and her status was left unclear.
Later in the meeting, in response to Delzeit's "Plan B," Yates noted that "in 1995 this combined board (Morro Bay and Cayucos) voted to make this a tertiary project." The only question was how much of the processed effluent would be cleansed to tertiary standards, he added. He didn't say it, but his comment indicated Plan B involves backtracking.
Secondary treatment removes dissolved and suspended biological matter in sewage waste and has limited uses outside the plant. Tertiary-treated effluent can be discharged into highly sensitive or fragile ecosystems, even rivers, for agriculture irrigation use and ground water recharge of wells used for drinking water.
The Coastal Commission staff report that recommended rejection of the Morro Bay-Cayucos wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) project in March made extensive findings on recycling of WWTP water. It emphasized that the Morro Bay's own Local Coastal Plan (LCP), adopted and approved by the city and the commission, "requires the city to pursue water reclamation as part of this WWTP project." So it has no choice.
"Maximum reuse of reclaimed water would help the city meet its water supply needs and ensure water supply is available for priority uses as required by the LCP, especially if/when state water is restricted or unavailable," the report said. "Properly treated reclaimed water could be used for many beneficial purposes, including agricultural irrigation inside and/or outside of the district’s service area, injection wells to maintain and enhance the water quality and biological resources associated with the Chorro and Morro groundwater basins.
"In short, the LCP requires that the new WWTP provide for a meaningful reclaimed water component because the LCP requires: (1) water
reclamation to be a part of the WWTP upgrade; (2) water supply to be protected for priority uses; and (3) the quantity of water in the Morro and Chorro groundwater basins to be enhanced where feasible."
However, it pointed out, "the project (rejected by the commission in March) includes a plan for only a small amount of wastewater reclamation. The project includes a plan for the future production of 0.4 mgd of disinfected tertiary recycled water, the highest standard of recycled water, which could be put to a wide range of uses, including agricultural irrigation, groundwater replenishment and residential landscaping. However, as (submitted), there is no requirement to carry out this plan.
"For a city that has significant water supply issues, including fragile groundwater basins, and given that there is a strong correlation between the health of the groundwater basins and broader environmental resource health, it is incumbent on the city to explore options for addressing such LCP issues more thoroughly than has been done to date, particularly for a major public improvement project such as this. The city’s (project) lacks the level of data and analysis that would allow for informed LCP decisions to be made on this point" and "the city’s WWTP approval does not adequately identify information necessary for decision-makers to make LCP decisions on this point, and does not adequately account for LCP wastewater reclamation requirements."
Despite the high priority that the commission staff places on the production of significant amounts of recycled water, Delzeit's list of information and studies that the consultants would prepare for a subsequent submission to the commission as a condition to the commission considering a new and different WWTP project makes no mention of reclaimed or recycled water to be produced by a new project.
Smukler told the council and board that it seemed $820,000 had been spent so far on the WWTP. City wastewater division manager Bruce Keogh said another $120,000 should be added. Delzeit said there were more "historical costs."
Foster said Delzeit "was hired due to your experience with the Coastal Commission. We assumed no appeal (to the commission). Are you saying the (project manager contract time) you are spending does not include (relations with) the commission?"
"It appeared a year ago, we did not know if appeal would be filed (challenging the WWTP), but we thought there was a pretty good chance of it." He indicated the lengthy commission staff report tearing apart the submitted project changed things. But he didn't answer Foster's question.
Former council member Betty Winholtz commented from the audience that "it is important to clarify Delzeit's contract."
"I think it is the (Cayucos) board's responsibility to review the (consultants) before it is put out to bid," Foster said.
As far as McCabe, he said it is "my understanding she was hired for one month and to report back on the chances we could get (the project) through the commission. We are paying someone and she is not even here to introduce herself."
Robert Ennns, the board chair, said, "We hired her for just one month. Her contract is at an end. She said if she billed us, it would have been for $32,000."
One of the key issues raised by the commission report was where to locate the new WWTP and to review possible alternatives. But Yates said "the location of the plant—no one had talked it until the commission staff report. The message I get from constituents is keep the cost down and get it finished. You are not a unanimous voice (speaking to the large audience at the meeting). You are only those who come out to meetings."
Delzeit returned to McCabe and indicated she is advocating the WWTP plan that was turned down. "We as a staff believe that is the proper choice. We are following directions this council and board have given us."
"We hired her to tell use if we can get this through the commission?" Foster asked. "We found that out. We didn't need her to tell us that. Until we have studies of (alternative) sites, what do we need her for?" He made a motion to cancel the contract with her. But there was no second (which has to come from the Cayucos board).
"If we want to lobby the Coastal Commission, why not get a group of ratepayers—they would do it for free?" Foster asked.
From the audience, Barry Branin, a retired engineer and Morro Bay resident, said, "My question is, 'Who is in charge?' I don't see anyone up there in charge (on hiring McCabe and selecting consultants for a new project). We are wasting a lot of time and money. It is embarrassing."
Barbara Doerr, a Morro Bay resident and a long-time council member elsewhere, said "the agenda is hard to understand. It is very poorly stated—the actions you may make tonight."
Richard Margetson of Cambria said from the audience said you hired McCabe to tell you the chances of success with the Coastal Commission, but "you knew what was going to happen. We told you what was going to happen. I believe the audience thought her contract was going to be reviewed."
Yates said, "We had a campaign last year. The No. 1 issue we talked about was the WWTP and PERC Water (a possible contractor). The candidates talked until they were blue in their faces. We were elected," indicating he has a mandate from voters to decide on the project.
"I just hope we are doing the right thing," Leage said.
"What harm is there is suspending her (McCabe) contract until we see some numbers?" Smukler asked. "At least a month until we have some deeper dialogue on this."
"We shouldn't have taken 16 years on this," Yates said. "It is kind of a replay of (the) Los Osos (sewer project)."
"We are back where we were two years ago," Smukler said. "I move we suspend the lobbyist contract until we have more information about the Coastal Commission process." There was no second. He then moved to review Delzeit's contract at the next JPA meeting. Again, no second.
Delzeit said 10 alternative sites for the WWTP have been reviewed and have been narrowed down to a final three, which includes the proposed project site next to the present plant. He said it will take six months to get the consultants' studies to the JPA. "We have a fairly high level of confidence in the present site (presumably for an upgrade)."
He said "no budget has been developed for this work. The consultants will probably fall in the $300,000 to $350,000 range," although his report in the agenda included a range of $200,000 to $650,000.
Then, he brought up the public workshops that the Coastal Commission staff has called for. "How we are going to encourage broader participation of the public—that's a big challenge," he said.
"No one has asked me about the scope of work (for a new plant)," Foster injected. "We need to look at whether one plant for both communities is the best thing. We should include that."
Doerr said, "Some people feel they are elected so they have a mandate and don't have an open mind on alternatives."
Winholtz then spoke up and noted that Yates defeated her for mayor last November by only 72 votes, implying that does not represent a mandate.
"I want to be part of the (consultants) selection process," Foster said. "I don't want to see just any three chosen."
Yates said, "It won't take all that much time to do that. Let's have staff do that."
"We are moving forward without directions from the JPA (Council and Cayucos board)," Foster said.
"As project manager, it seemed obvious that the next step was to get a consultant," Delzeit said. "Yes, I did."
"The scope of work and the consultant to do the site analysis is important and I want to be part of that," Foster said.
"It's up to your board," Yates said. "I am grateful we have a project manager to do it."
Board members Hal Fones and Shirley Lyon favored leaving it to the staff, but Dan Chivens, a new Cayucos board member, said, "I have no problem in Foster being on the committee (to review the consultants)." Enns said he "welcomes (board) members to sit in on the interviews."
"I want to know what criteria staff is using to select consultants," Foster said. "We had no input into the process. I didn't find out until today we even were considering consultants."
He then made a motion "to allow Foster (himself) to participate in the selection process" and recommend one person be appointed from the council to participate. It was approved by the Cayucos board by a 3-1 vote with one abstention.
Smukler made the same motion for a council member to participate in the process. "I don't want to micromanage Delzeit and staff," Yates said. It failed 3-1. Council member Nancy Johnson was absent from the meeting.
Smukler then made a motion for the council to approve Foster to attend the meetings. Yates and Leage voted no and Borchard yes, so it failed
Smukler followed with a motion to require that the names of two prospective consultants be brought back to the council and Cayucos board for the selection of one. It passed 4-0. The Cayucos board apparently approved the same motion.