Synopsis: It has been seven years since Morro Bay and Cayucos started planning for a new wastewater treatment plant, with little to show in results today besides wasted time and money in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Who is responsible? Robert Enns, the president of the Cayucos Sanitary District board, has accused local residents of forcing MB/CSD "to spend a lot of money to answer a lot of questions" and thereby prevent more progress on bringing a new plant to fruition. He ignored any responsibility the Morro Bay City Council, his board, or their staffs might have had for virtually nothing having been accomplished in seven years.
It has been more than seven years since the Morro Bay City Council and Cayucos Sanitary District board began planning replacement of the wastewater treatment plant that they jointly own and operate. They had to replace it — a state agency said so.
That started in 2004. Now, in 2012, there is no selected site, no acceptable design, no state-approved plans to build, and certainly no ground has been broken. Meantime, a great deal of time has gone by and hundreds of thousands of dollars — if not millions — in taxpayer money have been spent with no end results.
Who is responsible for this waste in time and money spent on studies, contractors, consultants, and reports that have gone nowhere?
Robert Enns, the president of the Cayucos Sanitary District board, seems to think it is us, the residents. He said so at the joint Morro Bay and Cayucos (MB/CSD) meeting on January 12.
"I would like to point out that lots of questions being asked are the result of people coming up to the microphone, through the public comment periods, through the appeals process (residents appealed a MB/CSD plant proposal in January, 2011, to the California Coastal Commission, which rejected it), through the workshops that we have opened to the public, and through that process, we have wound up having to spend a lot of money to answer a lot of questions. So sometimes I think we need to look in the mirror as to why we had to spend the money."
He may have been inadvertently prompted by Dennis Delzeit, the manager of the project to build a new wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), who earlier told the meeting that the Coastal Commission staff had "emphasized the importance of encouraging public input" and mentioned the workshops, public comments to the Commission, and encouragement of public participation by MB/CSD. As a result of this, "hundreds of comments were received" and it was necessary "to answer so many questions brought up during this process."
CSD board member Michael Foster countered, "I'm not sure public comments caused the project to go over budget."
Resident Barry Branin described how the Coastal Commission staff had clearly laid out what MB/CSD needed to do to develop an acceptable new plant. But the MB/CSD and their staffs "have not been telling Dudek (their contractor planning the project) the right thing to do." Others expressed similar sentiments about the failures of the MB/CSD and their staffs.
Marla Jo Bruton, another resident, said "you are looking pretty ridiculous over there," apparently aimed at the MB/CSD staffs. "We are being hoodwinked."
Council member Nancy Johnson angrily replied:
"The agenda says all remarks are to be made to the governing body as a whole and not to individual members, and the governing body requests that you refrain from making slanderous, profane, or personal slanderous remarks. It sounds to me like some of these comments are getting far too personal and in many cases inaccurate."
Bruton sought to respond but was not allowed by mayor Bill Yates, who was presiding at the meeting, to speak more to the Council and CSD board. She did not name any individual in her remarks that Johnson attacked.
A short time later, Council member Carla Borchard said, "I appreciate public testimony and find it disheartening when members of the community make accusatory statements of dishonesty (by) members working for the community. I think it is really digression from where the meeting should go." She seemed to almost break up at the end of her remarks.
No mention was made by Enns of any responsibility by the MB/CSD for the seven-year-long delay, despite accusations to that effect from residents that night. Or the California Coastal Commission, which is overseeing the plant project, being in any way responsible. The Commission staff over the past year has asked more questions about the project, requiring more MB/CSD staffs' time to respond than everyone else put together. In fact, the Commission staff on two occasions over the past three years has twice sent letters to the MB/CSD stating the requirements for a new plant, based on Morro Bay, county (Cayucos), and state statutes.
But the majority on the current City Council and the ones before it have demonstrably ignored those requirements (see more detail at the conclusion of this article), and only now has MB/CSD reached the point where they may be ready to recognize what the Commission staff, which has the power to do so, is going to require in the way of a new plant and may be willing to comply. It all depends on whether MB/CSD provides the data that the Commission staff has requested (Slo Coast Journal - January 2012 -Two Strikes) within a few weeks so that a hearing on the project can be scheduled before the Commission itself on April 12 in Ventura when a final go-ahead on the WWTP project could be approved.
The key indicator of that apparent willingness to comply came when MB/CSD on January 12 agreed to fund additional work by Dudek engineering, its plant planning consultant, to provide the Commission staff with the additional information it has requested. Approved was an additional $110,000 to Dudek on top of its original $345,000 contract agreed to last summer.
The information that the Commission staff requested consists of crucial facts and analysis omitted from Dudek's review and evaluation of the 17 sites that have been under consideration for location of a new plant. The Dudek report was submitted to the Coastal Commission staff several months ago.
That requested information points to the Commission staff ultimately requiring a new plant that would be capable of providing reclaimed water that could be inserted into local aquifers and extracted as disinfected recycled water for use by Morro Bay, if not Cayucos, residents in their homes. Use of that water could save residents significant amounts of money over the city's current use of state water, which is not only very costly but its future reliability is uncertain because of dwindling state water supplies. These are points the Coastal Commission staff has emphasized repeatedly to MB/CSD.
The Commission staff is scheduled to meet with the MB/CSD staffs in February, at which time the Commission staff is expected to decide if its requests for information from MB/CSD have been met. If not, no Commission hearing on the project will likely be held in April and more delays will ensue until Dudek provides what the Commission staff requires. It needs the information to determine the best way and place to build a new plant.
What comes next if the Commission staff gets all the information it has requested? That staff will provide recommendations on the nature of the proposal for a new plant that MB/CSD should submit to the Commission itself for final consideration and the granting of a Coastal Development Permit to go ahead with the project, a staff member said. If MB/CSD chooses not to follow those recommendations, it will be faced with going up against the Commission staff before the Commission, which undoubtedly faces long odds for MB/CSD to win.
Perhaps the biggest but almost-never discussed question is: will Cayucos participate in developing and funding a new WWTP that would produce such significant quantities of reclaimed water, given the fact that as a sanitary district it has no responsibility for providing water to Cayucos residents, it owns no water pipes in Cayucos and there already are several private water companies that supply water to residents through their pipes, water drawn from their wells.
For apparently the first time, CSD board member Michael Foster broached that subject out of the blue at the January 12 meeting.
"I have trouble establishing a nexus as to whether a water reclamation issue is within the scope of authority of a sanitary district," he said. There was dead silence for a few moments. Then, Rob Livick, the city's public services director, responded, "It may not be within the scope of our duties to provide reclaimed water (to Caycuos), but the Coastal Commission staff has made it clear we need to address that to get the project approved, and until we address that we are not going to get a project through the Coastal Commission appeals process. So we can't get a plant built until we address it."
But how or when the Cayucos reclaimed water issue will be addressed was not mentioned, much less explained.
Asked about this unresolved issue of whether the CSD would or could use either recycled water directly from a new plant or disinfected water from Morro Bay aquifers, Madeline Cavalieri, the lead Coastal Commission staff member on the WWTP project, said the staff has reached no conclusions but expects MB/CSD to provide information on different "options" on Cayucos' involvement in use of reclaimed water. "We don't know what the feasible options are at this point," she said. "It may not be feasible to provide recycled water to Cayucos."
Over the past three years, two letters have been sent by the Coastal Commission staff to MB/CSD explaining what was required in a new plant.
In a letter dated December 8, 2008, the staff told the city:
Water Reclamation. The NOP (the MB/CSD Notice of Preparation for a wastewater treatment plan) states that the wastewater treatment plant will be capable of tertiary treatment and that the resultant water will be discharged through the City’s ocean outfall near Morro Rock. It is our understanding that tertiary treated wastewater with additional sanitation/purification can potentially be used for irrigation, wetlands enhancement, or re-injection into deep water aquifers, and potentially other uses. The EIR (Environmental Impact Report) should 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.
In another letter dated November 12 , 2010, that staff said:
...the (Draft EIR) proposal does not include a plan for water reclamation that meets the expectations of the City of Morro Bay LCP (Local Coastal Plan), the San Luis Obispo County LCP, or recent actions of the (Coastal) Commission, including in its recent approval of the Los Osos Waste Water Project.
...the use of State Water is extremely energy intensive and has significant environmental impacts far removed from Morro Bay, including impacts on anadromous fish and other species in the Delta. These, and other, State water concerns highlight the general issue associated with ensuring that appropriate measures are taken to move towards and ensure a locally sustainable water supply.
Therefore, the LCP clearly requires the City to pursue water reclamation as part of this WWTP project.