After a six-hour hearing of conflicting testimony over the ecological impacts caused by Morro Bayâ€™s and Cayucosâ€™ Estero Bay sewage outfall, water quality officlals remain deadlocked on the issue.
Described as â€œa doozieâ€? by Regional Water Quality Control Board engineer Matt Thompson, the hearing last week pitted Morro Bay and Cayucos sewage plant officials and Water Board staff against the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the Surfrider Foundation.
At issue is whether Morro Bay and Cayucos should be granted a special waiver to continue their ocean discharge of sewageâ€”a discharge that does not always meet modern treatment standardsâ€”while the two communities spend eight years upgrading the plant to meet stricter standards. Morro Bay and Cayucos are still at odds about whether the plant should be upgraded to tertiary standards, which would create reclaimed water for irrigation and eliminate the ocean discharge. Currently the outfall includes sewage treated only to primary standards (i.e., removal of certain solids), especially during heavy summer water use created by increased tourism.
The main focus in the argument is sea otters, which are sick and dying in record numbers in the vicinity of the sewage outfall, located off a popular state beach in Morro Bay. Environmental groups say that toxins in the poorly treated sewage are the cause of the ottersâ€™ plight, while Water Board staff and sewer officials say that testing near the ocean outfall has not proven a link between toxoplasma gondi (a bacteria commonly found in cats) and the sewage outfall. The toxoplasma, one culprit in the ottersâ€™ weakened immunity, is thought to be part of the sewage stream because of flushable cat litter. Sea otters are considered a keystone species of coastal ecosystems: â€œan animal on which the balance of entire ecosystems rests,â€? according to the Sierra Club.
Three Water Board members agreed with the environmental groups, while three others voted to grant the waiver as part of a settlement agreement for an eventual higher level of sewage treatment. â€œA deadlock amounts to no action,â€? explains Thompson, adding that it is possible that the missing Water Board member, University of California at Santa Cruz environmental studies professor Dr. Daniel Press, could view the video and testimony of the hearing, and then cast a deciding vote.
Two seats on the nine-member Regional Water Quality Control Board, representing water quality and municipal government, remain unfilled by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has a role in the decision, since the proposed settlement involves a waiver from the standards of the U.S. Clean Water Act. Even if the Water Board votes 4-3 to turn down the waiver, the EPA has the authority to issue a permit for a waiver during the sewage plant upgrade, says Thompson, Still, he says, there is likely to be a public education campaign urging cat owners in the coastal communities to bag up kitty litter and put it in the trash rather than flushing it.
Whether a decision is made on the sewage outfall by a decisive vote of the absent Water Board member or by the EPA, it can be appealed by either side. Meantime, the sewage discharge into Estero Bay will continue during this and future summers.