Columnist

City’s Sewer Project Makes No Sense

By Larry K. Truesdale

There are two significant issues that have not been satisfactorily resolved regarding the proposed Morro Bay Sewer and Wastewater Treatment Plant (euphemistically being called the “Water Reclamation Facility” or WRF) other than its truly unaffordable cost to the local residents.

It should be noted that Cayucos bailed from its wastewater treatment partnership with Morro Bay due to the excessive costs they would incur if they remained.

The first significant issue relates to the siting of the proposed facility. Of the 17 sites considered for the WRF only one, referred to as the “South Bay Boulevard Site,” is in the Morro Bay Estuary watershed.

Since the financial health of the City of Morro Bay is intimately tied to the vibrant health of the estuary and the bay, how could the City of Morro Bay and, also the California Coastal Commission with its mandate to protect the coast, allow a sewage treatment facility with its large, 16-inch, pressurized, raw sewage pipe to be located in such an environmentally sensitive location?

After all, there were at least 16 other sites that would not jeopardize the future of the estuary and at least one of those, if properly vetted, could be more affordable without jeopardizing the City of Morro Bay.

I cannot imagine tourists flocking to Morro Bay to see a polluted bay. How many people flock to see Love Canal?

A polluted bay would certainly destroy the City’s precarious financial situation by simply trashing the TOT tax base and all the hotels in the city.

Furthermore, the city’s outreach has not included Los Osos, which also is on the bay. Their future quality of life would likewise be jeopardized by the selection of the South Bay site.

How can the City of Morro Bay move forward without notifying the citizenry of Los Osos of the potential dangers this project poses to them?

The Morro Bay Estuary is among the largest natural estuary on the West Coast. It is a very important site for hundreds of species of migratory birds and I worry about their healthy futures, should the estuary be contaminated.

After all, we cannot post a sign over the area saying, “Do not land here. It is hazardous to your health.”

A raw sewage spill in the estuary would be disastrous to all.

The citizens of Morro Bay have noted the millions of dollars the Council has spent on engineering consultants to design the WRF, but no design is flawless.

We can all remember the fate of the space shuttles, with billions of dollars of the best engineering the country world could muster, failed twice with catastrophic results.

I am not saying the WRF needs or could tolerate the expense of such an engineering project, but the question of failure from sophisticated engineering projects is not “IF” but “WHEN” failure will occur and at what ultimate cost?

The space shuttle resorted to redundancy to prevent disastrous failures, but certain parts were simply too expensive or impossible to have redundancy, thus the ultimate failures.

The WRF has such a potential flaw in its design. The proposed large, 16- inch diameter, pressure pipe that is needed to transport all of Morro Bay’s raw sewage to the South Bay Boulevard site is too expensive for redundancy.

Thus, only a single pipe will be utilized. If constructed properly, the pipe will likely function effectively for a couple of decades. The problem is that Morro Bay has a notorious history of poorly maintaining its sewage lines.

The Main Street, the Beach Tract, and the Embarcadero collection lines have been seriously leaking for well over a decade, leading to contamination of the water supply, Morro Bay and the ocean from underground migration of the raw sewage.

Public Works Director, Rob Livick has told us that we should not worry because “all sewage lines leak,” particularly old ones. However, there is a big difference between these old sewage lines, as bad as they are, and a large pressurized line that the whole system depends upon to function from hour to hour and day to day.

The pressurized line will handle approximately 600,000 gallons of liquid sludge a day. A leak from this more corrosive, pressurized fluid pipe may be hard to measure when it first starts, but the catastrophic leak that would subsequently follow could pump over 100,000 gallons every 4 hours into the estuary.

That may be an optimistically short timeframe for the operators to discover the problem, depending on the time of day or night, to shut off the flow.

Remediation and repairs could take many months to years. The tourists would go home and not come back. The wildlife that depends on the estuary could take decades to recover, if they do not succumb to the waste.

The residents of Morro Bay would be stuck without toilets and showers from the time the leaking pipe is shut down. The City would have to deploy about 6,000 port-a-potties and public bathing facilities within hours and maintain them for an indefinite period of time.

My suspicion is that the citizens of Morro Bay would have to leave, just like the tourists. Their property values would be irreparably harmed. The City would likely go bankrupt.

Los Osos would just have to deal with a contaminated bay and a lesser depreciation of their property values, too, since their sewage treatment plant is independent of Morro Bay’s.

The City of Morro Bay calls the South Bay Boulevard site their “Forever Site.” But the Forever Site should be called the “Forever Threat” to the estuary, Morro Bay, and Los Osos. That is why I say the question is not IF, but WHEN?

How would one ever modernize the flow system to proactively prevent a disastrous leak from the WRF, before the aged, failing, pressurized delivery system needs replacing?

There is only one tiny strip of land to locate such a line and the old line is already there. The old line would need to be replaced with a new one before it is shut down! Not feasible.

Speaking of the location of the 16-inch pressurized sewage line, there are a number of known historic and prehistoric cultural sites located along the narrow, proposed Quintana Road route.

This will require special consideration from the native Indian tribes, the State Office of Historic Preservation and the Advisory Council on Historic preservation in Washington D. C.

I cannot imagine them allowing the disturbance of these precious ancestral artifacts and remains, which will eventually become permanently entombed in human waste from the sewage lines that will leak, according to the City.

They would have to demand that the artifacts all be removed, but the tribes find this also to be unacceptable. I am sure that they would not want their own remains entombed in such a hellish environment so why would they want their ancestor’s remains subjected to it?

This consultation process could take well over a year and not lead to approval of the proposed pipe route.

Finally, the second significant issue relates to the pursuit of the water purification part of the WRF. Projections are that the proposed WRF would enable the city to recover about 500,000 gallons per day of tertiary-treated, sterile water at a cost slightly higher than the current price of state water.

This sounds like a reasonable expense for the recycled water until one considers that Morro Bay’s costs for state water will significantly decrease in the near future, after the coastal branch delivery system is paid off. This makes recycled water expensive!

However, recycled water does have value during drought because of its scarcity. We would then have to consider the cost of building a water reclamation plant that would only be used during droughts and compare its costs to a desalination plant, which already exists but in a state of disrepair. Those discussions have not been rigorously aired to the public.

As admirable as recycling water sounds, there are still other issues that need to be addressed. If the water recycling plant were to be built, what is the City going to do with 500,000 gallons a day of potentially drinkable water not legally fit for human consumption?

The City did study the feasibility of recharging the Morro Valley aquifer with this purified water, but nearly two years ago stopped short of determining the practicality of doing so, due to the likelihood of getting a less than favorable answer.

The impermeable clay-like soil underlying the Morro Valley aquifer may only be able to handle a small proportion of the volume of the possible purified water without creating flooding issues.

Are they going to pump the excess, expensive water, possibly 350,000-400,000 gpd, back into the ocean? This would be a monumental waste of funds to enable water purification for such a use!

Alternatively, we are told that it is too expensive to pump the water to Whale Rock reservoir and back again for Morro Bay use. The water is definitely too expensive for agricultural purposes and it would still need to be pumped to the farms.

Pumping it to Los Osos, which desperately needs more water to make their oversized sewage treatment plant operate efficiently, is also prohibitively expensive and Morro Bay would lose all access to the water.

The tertiary, purified sterile water could theoretically be directly used for human consumption, but California does not currently allow such a use.

Rules are being considered to enable this type of use, but IF ever passed, the likely necessary analytical safety checks would be prohibitively expensive for a population of only 10,500 or even ultimate target population of the City of 12,200.

This does raise the question of why we are rushing to build a water purification facility we do not even know if we can utilize, while bankrupting a significant percentage of the city’s current population if they continue to live in the city.

In two years, the departure of Cayucos from the Morro Bay Joint Powers Agreement will afford us ample time to determine exactly what Morro Bay will need in the future. Their departure will leave the current sewage treatment facility well under capacity and able to handle all of Morro Bay’s sewage treatment needs, affording the City time to get the hard facts necessary to design an appropriate facility that its citizens can support.

The focus needs to be on repairing all old, leaky sewer lines and capping the manholes to prevent rainwater infiltration into the sewer plant. This will enable us to determine the true volumes needed for the new sewer treatment facility. But this critical figure is not currently known!

An appropriately sized facility requires it. Engineers calculated what they thought Los Osos needed and ended up building a facility twice the size needed. Morro Bay should not repeat this costly mistake.

Secondly, during the Cayucos transition period, the City needs to focus on how much water the Morro Valley aquifer can handle to supplement the City’s drinking water. That should be a primary figure in sizing the water reclamation facility that the City needs to build. If more water is produced than we can consume, we need to have some organization contractually committed to buying any excess water capacity at an appropriate price to cover its value and costs. These two critical needs should to be the focus of the City to enable it to intelligently move forward with a new sewage treatment and water reclamation facility.

The current plant will function admirably for at least another 10 years, if necessary, with routine maintenance. We need to wisely utilize this interim time to do what is best for the City, its citizens, and the environment. Not doing so would be irresponsible.

Thinking about the above information, some comments on the other 16 potential sites are warranted. All the other 16 sites are outside the Morro Bay Estuary watershed, significantly reducing the potential environmental and financial disasters the South Bay Boulevard site entails.

Don’t get me wrong. Any leak is very bad and the IF/WHEN question does not go away. The farther away from the current site, the more expensive the facility is to build and all will contain a prohibitively expensive lift station and a large pressurized sewage line, with its associated hazards.

A short pipeline is surely more desirable, but still problematic. The critical difference between the two watersheds is that the Morro Bay estuary is not jeopardized by the other locations, and the financial harm to the city is lower when the disastrous leak occurs.

If the path the pressurized line follows is down Highway 41, there will be additional, new issues with Cal Trans, which will result in delays. More importantly, there are numerous historic and prehistoric cultural sites along Hwy 41 that cannot be mitigated (burial sites can’t be mitigated and need to be protected in place).

If one tries to go up Hwy 41, the shorter the distance, the better because redundancy is still needed for the pressurized line. Clearly a 3-mile line is not economically possible. Even a 1-mile line is prohibitively expensive because it would require a second 1-mile, redundant line for safety.

Frankly, these solutions sound like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. They do not work.

This leads me to appreciate the wisdom, and the just pure common sense the original designers of the Morro Bay sewer system had. It is mostly gravity fed. There are three lift stations, but no large, pressurized sewage lines traveling many miles. If there is a problem in North or South Morro Bay, the central location of the plant provides an interesting type of “partial redundancy,” in that the problem will not shut down the entire city or jeopardize the bay and its watershed.

Without pressurized lines, massive leaks are unlikely when properly maintained. Basically the current plant is a superior layout and design, although not the latest technology.

This strongly suggests that if the threat of flooding of the current wastewater treatment plant can be obviated, the negative impacts discussed earlier can be avoided.

This would be a trivial engineering task since there are several such sites in the immediate vicinity for which many in the community have suggested as simple solutions.

Such a site is also going to be by far the most affordable for the citizenry without the need of a lift station and many miles of costly pressurized sewage lines, thus it is simple, affordable and the most environmentally friendly.

This should be compelling to all involved, particularly the California Coastal Commission, which should be looking for the best solution for the coast without mandating social engineering of a city.

Lastly, the Coastal Commission’s goal to move all sewage treatment facilities back from the coast is an admirable one. For many coastal cities this may be just a matter of timing, expense, and lifespan of their current facility.

Water recovery is also a highly desirable add-on in a drought-prone desert environment like much of California.

Unfortunately, Morro Bay is not one of these cities. Its geology is not favorable for large-scale water recycling and it is situated on a large, biologically vital estuary that is irreplaceable.

The estuary’s environment is fragile and requires special stewardship, the type the California Coastal Commission was created to assure.

Why are they not helping? As the saying goes, “one size does not fit all.”

Based on good science, geology, hydrology and biology, Morro Bay is an exception to the rule. This needs to be recognized immediately before going forward with the current, proposed WRF.

Rushing to get a low interest loan to build an oversized sewage treatment facility and a water recycling plant of unknown value would be financially irresponsible for the City.

 

 

Larry K. Truesdale, Morro Bay

 

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