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W.T.F.: Morro Bay weighs cost and citizen input as it decides where to put a new wastewater treatment facility

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A large “for sale” sign is staked into the ground beside Highway 41 at the entrance to the Righetti Ranch, a 253-acre property in the Morro Valley along the edge of Morro Bay. Two ranch gates bound by a locked chain bar access down the driveway that leads to an old barn, a few houses, and a couple of outbuildings on the property’s precious flat land. Behind those, grass covered hills roll up to the ridge above.

A few houses sit along the property line at the edge of the city, while a few more peek over the ridgeline at an expansive view of the ranch and the greater Morro Valley, looking over avocado groves and up into the Santa Lucia Range.

On the other side of that ridge, a neighborhood rolls down the hillside toward Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean. Aside from a few quips residents might make about the power lines that crisscross above Nutmeg Avenue and down toward Ponderosa Street, all in all, life is good.

RELUCTANT ACTIVISTS:  Morro Bay residents Donna Burke, Karen Luhmann, Jacqueline Marie, and Alice Kolb, who live on Nutmeg Avenue and Ponderosa Street, near a possible site for the city’s new wastewater treatment facility, discuss the list of problems they would have living near the project, should the city pursues its construction there. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • RELUCTANT ACTIVISTS: Morro Bay residents Donna Burke, Karen Luhmann, Jacqueline Marie, and Alice Kolb, who live on Nutmeg Avenue and Ponderosa Street, near a possible site for the city’s new wastewater treatment facility, discuss the list of problems they would have living near the project, should the city pursues its construction there.

But lately, neighborhood residents fear that their million dollar views are threatened (and their fresh ocean air tainted) by the possibility that the city will build a new wastewater treatment plant within 2,000 feet of 424 homes—at Righetti Ranch.

Technically called a water reclamation facility, or a WRF, often pronounced “wharf,” it would treat the city’s wastewater, recycle it, and return it for reuse. City officials and their consultants say the project will employ cutting-edge technology to drastically reduce the impacts—smell, noise, light, to name a few—often associated with wastewater treatment plants.

When residents in the adjacent neighborhood hear “WRF,” their sensory reactions and concerns about impacted property values take over. They’re worried about the potentials: a lingering smell, around-the-clock noise, and light pollution.

“No matter what sugar-coated name or acronym you give it, it is a sewer plant,” said Bill Todd at the March 8 Morro Bay City Council meeting. Todd lives on lower Nutmeg, about 600 feet away from the proposed site.

A few months prior, the Righetti site was bumped to the top of a list of five possible locations. Plans to build the plant on Rancho Colina, farther away from the city limits in the Morro Valley (but next to a mobile home park), hit a snag, and the city switched its focus to Righetti.

During that time, the Righetti site had hovered on the top half of the list.

Nonetheless, by the time the item came before the council for discussion in March, residents were furious.

“I don’t go to City Council meetings; I don’t look at agendas; I don’t go to these committee meetings; so I was totally shocked,” said resident Patty Martinez at the March 8 meeting.

Residents caught the council a bit off guard, inadvertently joining another flock of angry residents that came to discuss a different sore subject—city code enforcement. Residents with arms crossed glared up at the council, filling every seat available in the Morro Bay Veterans Hall and lining the walls. It prompted Mayor Jamie Irons to recommend the council take up the code enforcement at the following meeting, rather than have everyone stick around into the wee hours of the night.

When it came time for residents to speak about the project, several members of the audience waved cardstock leaflets that read “WTF? LULU,” a play on the project’s official acronym.

The council still hasn’t picked a site, but the pressure is building to make a decision and move forward with planning the project—that could come as soon as June 14—and there may yet be another bump in the already windy road.

Troubled beginning

Morro Bay’s wastewater currently goes into a dated wastewater treatment plant sitting on prime oceanside property between Morro Bay High School and the shuttered power plant, where it joins wastewater from Cayucos, is treated, and is pumped out into the ocean.

SICK TO HER STOMACH :  Morro Bay resident Jacqueline Marie overlooks the Righetti Ranch from her bedroom window. She lives on Nutmeg Avenue, and that view could change if the city builds a wastewater treatment facility on the ranch. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • SICK TO HER STOMACH : Morro Bay resident Jacqueline Marie overlooks the Righetti Ranch from her bedroom window. She lives on Nutmeg Avenue, and that view could change if the city builds a wastewater treatment facility on the ranch.

In 2003, the Central Coastal Regional Water Quality Control Board told Morro Bay and Cayucos that the current treatment standard was insufficient, violated the Clean Water Act, and would need to be brought into compliance by 2014 or the cities would face fines.

That prompted a discussion about whether to upgrade the plant on site and send the effluent out to the ocean—considered the more cost-effective approach—or to relocate it, increase the level of treatment, and recycle the water—considered the more environmentally responsible option.

The partners decided on the former, and began planning to retrofit the treatment plant. Those plans, which included a facility master plan and an environmental impact report (EIR), involved a fatal flaw analysis—which looks for any major problems that could eventually become deal breakers in the project’s permit approval.

During that time, debate trudged on about keeping the site at its current location or moving it, and became one factor that motivate current City Councilmember Noah Smukler to run for office in 2008. Around the same time that Smukler—now the longest serving member on the council—was elected, project studies showed that the plant sits in a 100-year flood plain and a tsunami zone; both were potential fatal flaws.

“It was a major shift in the project because the flood maps exposed a high degree of concern and risks with the existing site,” Smukler said. “That’s when we had the debate of the location probably become the primary and largest concern and focus of the project.”

The debate became the centerpiece for a larger political struggle in the city, pitting the conservative old guard against the progressive up-and-comers who now control the City Council.

But before the shifting political winds caught sail, the Morro Bay-Cayucos Sanitary District Joint Powers Authority that managed the treatment plant pressed to retrofit the existing plant, spending millions of dollars on planning, design, and environmental analysis. At one point, in 2010, the city’s Planning Commission unanimously rejected the Joint Powers Authority’s application for a coastal development permit to retrofit the plant. But the City Council didn’t lose stride and overturned that denial with a 3-2 vote in January 2011 (with Smukler dissenting) to move forward.

In preparation for the project to go before the California Coastal Commission, which took serious issue with the project’s location in a flood plain and tsunami zone, the council hired Los Angeles-based lobbyist Susan McCabe. She’s known to have heavy sway with the commission and was recently in the spotlight for those ties and suspected involvement in the commission’s recent turmoil, including the February ouster of former Executive Director Charles Lester.

Right before the wastewater project reached the commission in January 2013, the tides turned and Morro Bay voters elected Mayor Jamie Irons and Councilmember Christine Johnson and
re-elected Smukler. The new council majority supported the commission’s ultimate denial of the project.

That denial was embraced as an important point for the fresh City Council to chart a new course for the city’s wastewater woes, and plans to move the plant were set into motion. Along the way, Morro Bay and Cayucos had a major falling out. The communities went their separate ways, and each is currently planning its own WRF.

Modern times

The WRF would run wastewater through a full tertiary treatment process and inject it back into the aquifer for recharge and reuse. The process has become increasingly common as environmental laws tighten and municipalities retrofit or replace aging treatment plants. The recycled water route is more costly, but that cost is often welcomed in parched California, where recycled water can become a valuable part of the local supply options.

Reclaimed water can become “purple pipe” water, used to water sports fields or landscapes, irrigate crops, or replenish streams and watersheds. It can also be injected into the aquifer and eventually be pulled back out safe to drink or to buffer seawater intrusion in coastal areas.

The city of San Luis Obispo has an extensive purple pipe system that distributes its recycled water. Paso Robles’ facility recently came online, and they’re looking to partner with the surrounding agricultural areas that want to chip in on the bond costs and use the water to recharge the area’s ailing groundwater basin. Atascadero uses recyled water to water Chalk Mountain Golf Course. And similar to Morro Bay, which is almost entirely dependent on expensive and undependable state water, Pismo Beach is in the early stages of finding regional partners and building a recycled water project of its own, which ultimately can be used to produce a water supply to help the city wean itself off of their dependence on state water.

VIEW FROM ABOVE:  Residents living near the Righetti Ranch are worried about a potential new water treatment facility that the city of Morro Bay is considering building there. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • VIEW FROM ABOVE: Residents living near the Righetti Ranch are worried about a potential new water treatment facility that the city of Morro Bay is considering building there.

Location is key in making these facilities viable. Laying pipes is expensive, so the closer the plant can be to existing infrastructure and potential customers, the better.

It’s why Morro Valley is at the top of Morro Bay’s list—it’s the closest to existing sewer lines, city wells, and prospective agricultural users who may want to buy in.

There are two potential sites not in Morro Valley—Tri-W, a piece of property once intended for the development of a Williams Brothers’ supermarket, which is on the southeastern edge of the city along the north side of Highway 1; and a property owned by Chevron along Toro Creek, north of the city.

Both are more isolated than the valley and would have fewer impacts to surrounding residents. Neighbors opposed to the Righetti site are urging the city to select Tri-W as its top pick. At that site, however, additional infrastructure would be needed to move the wastewater and treated water to and from the facility.

The city is also assessing another site in the valley—known as the Madonna property—but the spot’s closer to its neighbors and more directly in view than the Righetti site is.

Morro Bay City Manager Dave Buckingham said it’s very possible that the water will end up in the Morro Valley, no matter where the plant lands.

“There’s no question that the best water reclamation opportunities are in the Morro Valley, and therefore it is almost certain that regardless of where the WRF is built, we will need to pipe the treated effluent to the Morro Valley,” he said.

A 2014 report that assessed water reclamation opportunities, identified 56 sites in the Morro Valley as potential reclaimed water users, with a total estimated demand of 2,736 acre-feet of water. The Chorro Valley, where the Tri-W site is located, has four potential users with a 1,058 acre-feet of demand. The water could possibly be used to water the Morro Bay Golf Course or to buffer the stream flow in Chorro Creek.

The Righetti site is estimated to have the cheapest price tag of all five options, at about $129.6 million, while the Toro Creek option—which the city has backed away from—would be the most expensive, at about $150.8 million. The Tri-W site is estimated to cost $145.6 million, roughly 15 percent more than the Righetti site, which in turn would add an additional $8 to $13 dollars a month onto residents’ already increasing sewer bills.

But, with what city officials have heard thus far, Tri-W may become a more appealing option.

“That’s based on what we’ve heard recently,” said John Rickenbach, the project’s deputy project manager. “What we don’t know for sure is what the community-wide concerns over cost might be if the council goes forward with Tri-W.”

Now, the city is ramping up an outreach campaign aimed to get input from residents, who have historically said project cost is the most important consideration for the council.

“We want to be sure that we get a balance with these sites and understand the threshold of what the community supports,” Smukler said. “Every dollar saved is really important, and cost of living is important, and we want to make sure that we’re respecting that.”

Balancing act

The City Council now must weigh the possibility of upsetting residents near a site against asking ratepayers to pay more.

And at the end of the day, if the residents fight a move to build on Righetti, it may not actually be the cheapest option.

Alice Kolb, who lives on Ponderosa Street, said the city ought to consider that.

“If we’re showing up at every agency that has to approve the project within their jurisdiction, and then sue, that’s going to delay the project to the point where it’s more expensive,” she said. “Delay here will cost as much or more than the Tri-W site.”

Every day the project is delayed, costs go up, and the city risks falling out of the good graces of the regional water board, which extended the deadline to 2021 for a new plant to be up and running.

That some residents are pushing for the more costly alternative—and that a fight against the Righetti site could raise costs—has already rubbed a few residents the wrong way.

“The NIMBYs are the 1 percenters of Morro Bay,” said Terry Simons, referring to the acronym for “not in my back yard.” Simons, a familiar face at Morro Bay City Council meetings, spoke at the May 10 council meeting. He lives near the Tri-W site and said he’d be OK with the project’s construction there, but he isn’t convinced that the higher cost was justified.

“I’m still in favor of Tri-W; I just think that there will be a lot of people in this community that that will be a hardship for,” he said.

BARN OR SEWER?:  The city of Morro Bay is considering a handful of sites around the city to build a new wastewater treatment facility. At the top of the list is the Righetti Ranch, which has residents next to the property outraged. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • BARN OR SEWER?: The city of Morro Bay is considering a handful of sites around the city to build a new wastewater treatment facility. At the top of the list is the Righetti Ranch, which has residents next to the property outraged.

The city is already investigating Tri-W more thoroughly, including a careful assessment of neighbors’ sentiments in hopes of avoiding unexpected opposition in the future, if the project moves there.

The only residential use close to the site would be Casa de Flores, an assisted living facility sitting adjacent to Highway 1. According to city officials, talks about the project are already underway with representatives of the facility. New Times’ calls to the Casa de Flores administrator and the corporate office for Compass Health Inc., which operates the facility, were not returned.

South of Highway 1 there are two mobile home parks, an RV park, and a church. The home owners association president from one of those mobile home parks spoke at the City Council’s May 10 meeting and expressed frustration that her neighborhood hadn’t yet received any direct notice and asked a list of questions about how a project at the Tri-W site would impact that area. The city has since reached out to residents.

Meanwhile, it’s a tricky dance for planners as the project’s cost and impacts won’t be completely known until a site is finalized and more extensive study is done.

Even once a site’s picked, it’s not set in stone. In the case of Righetti, there’s one complication to navigate—a $25,000 holding deposit was placed on the property, which expires in July when the city must re-up that deposit. This time, it will cost $100,000.

Buckingham said it’s a consideration, but wouldn’t force a decision: “We’re not going to let an arbitrary date make a bad decision, but the sooner a decision is made, the more quickly we can get on to the next phases of planning and construction.”

Smukler said he appreciated that some of these differences are being hashed out now, so they can be taken into account as the project moves forward.

“We know that time is money, but we also know that if we rush into a site and get too far down the road in spending substantial dollars planning there but there’s also a fatal flaw to that site, we’ll lose time and the project could have problems,” Smukler said. “By doing all this due diligence work at this point, we’re going to have stronger and better information going into the environmental analysis, and hopefully that leads to a better project and a stronger permit.”

Asked if he worries that this issue may devolve into something that resembles what Los Osos faced, which spent decades battling over its sewer project and saw the project’s cost shoot through the roof in the process, Smukler saw parallels but also considers it an educational example.

“I think there’s lessons to be learned from Los Osos, and I see us struggling through with a similar stigma and reality of wastewater treatment,” he said. “Having Los Osos as a learning opportunity for Morro Bay—that’s one thing that I hope will keep us focused and knowing that we need this project as a community.”

For now, however, residents who live along the Righetti site don’t think of it as a stigma—instead, all they think of is sewage.

Jacqueline Marie, who looks out the bedroom window from her two-story cabin-style house and sees a clear shot of the Righetti barn, said that a WRF just doesn’t belong there.

“When you look down the hill and there’s a fence with concertina wire on it, is that a good neighbor?” she said. “I wake up in the morning and I think about what I’d be looking at, and my stomach turns.” 

Staff Writer Jono Kinkade can be reached at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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