Morro Bay City Council’s bait-and-switch

August 5, 2021

OPINION by CYNTHIA HAWLEY

This is a story, told in installments, about the corruption involved in Morro Bay’s water reclamation facility. It’s about lies, secrets, falsifications of laws and facts, and the misuse of public money, that is, illegally shoveling it out by the millions.

First, let’s look at the bait and switch tactic the Morro Bay City Council used during the last rate increase to build the new sewage treatment plant. This was in Sept. 2018, and the council members said they were raising rates to “rebuild” and “replace” the existing sewer plant and add wastewater reclamation.

This existing plant has the capacity to process 6.64 million gallons of sewage a day and has been used by Morro Bay and Cayucos for decades. What normally goes through the plant from the combined businesses and populations — about 13,000 people — of both towns is about 1 million gallons a day. This is what they said they were to rebuild.

The switch happened the very next month.

At their Oct. 23, 2018 meeting the city council approved a contract to build something entirely different — a sewage treatment plant with the total capacity to process 16.28 million gallons a day — two headworks that can process 8.14 million gallons a day of sewage. You can see this for yourself in the Exhibit B Scope of Work that’s attached to the contract and in the Basis of Design Report. Search in each for 8.14. There are multiple hits.

At that Oct. 2018 meeting absolutely no reason was given for contracting to build and pay for this oversized sewage treatment plant. In fact, the city council did not disclose the switch at all.

The fact that they did not contract to build what they said they were going to build the month before was not mentioned. There was no mention in the staff report of the capacity of the plant the city council contracted to build and no council member revealed it or questioned the switch.

By omitting this information they led people to believe that the contract was for “rebuilding” and “replacing” the existing plant as they had promised the month before.

And to make sure that no one would know what they contracted to spend ratepayer’s money on, the Exhibit B Scope of Work attachment to the contract that disclosed the infrastructure with the capacity to process 16.28 million gallons of sewage a day was removed from the contract that was provided in the staff report.

This was just the first step in the deception. The city went on to conspire with the California Coastal Commission staff to successfully conceal the size of the project during the entire permitting process. But that’s another facet of the story.

Cynthia Hawley is a land use and environmental protection attorney. She lives in Morro Bay and has lived on the coast of San Luis Obispo County for 45 years.


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mb business owner

Just as obscene is the bait and switch that former mayor irons, former council member christine johnson and former council member noah smuker did when they convinced the public that a new plant was only going to be slightly more expensive than refurbishing the existing plant. Unfortunately the community took that information hook line and sinker. The community is deep into developing a plant that transports SH_T uphill and then back downhill. Coastal Commission has backed away from managed retreat in the last few years and the cost overrun of this project is unknown and will be unknown, estimates of total price are 165M and does that include the cultural resources issues. Then of course there’s the issue with cayucos sanitary district owning a significant portion of the land that the current sewer sits on and how that all works out.


dobbsey

The plant is not designed to process 16.28 million gallons per day. It has two headworks, each of which have a design capacity of 8.14 million gallons per day. The headworks are in a parallel-redundant configuration, meaning that one will be operating while the other will be in standby mode. Given that these subsystems represent a single point of failure, this is a prudent design feature that maximizes plant uptime while enabling crews to perform maintenance. Furthermore, these plant subsystems must be sized to handle the highest expected instantaneous flow, which in this case is 8.14 million gallons per day. The 1 million-gallons-per-day figure from your story is the overall annual average, which is an entirely different concept, and is also clearly shown in the Design Basis in Table 1-1 of Section 1-4.


I look forward to more revelations of “corruption”, “deception”, and “conspiracy” your upcoming installments.


lookout

So, just where did that 8.14 number come from? The project’s “Concept Design Report” claims an 8.14 maximum daily flow was observed, and that this was part of the data used to determine plant capacity.


Yet, the City’s own legally-required annual monitoring reports for the existing plant (available online back through 2005 and through the City for earlier years) contradict that number. Every report says the current plant was designed to accommodate a peak flow of 6.64 mgd AND Every report shows that there was never a flow even remotely approaching 6.64, let alone 8.14. Did they lie? Not likely.


Remember also that the reported maximum flows included Cayucos, which now has its own plant. That means they will now be significantly lower.


Look back at those City reports and you’ll see that the flows are always much higher in winter than in summer, and that the reason is rainwater getting into the sewer lines (inflow and infiltration). That’s because the sewer system is in horrible condition and huge amounts of rainwater get in through holes and cracks, and that rainwater must then be processed by the sewer plant.


To learn more on that, see other City reports, such as “the 2018 “Sewer Flow Monitoring and Inflow/Infiltration Study“, by V&A Consulting Engineers.


So, why did the City not fix the sewer lines to drastically reduce plant flows so residents would not be paying to process rainwater, and then use its own official, certified reports detailing daily throughput to come up with a reasonable plant capacity? About that corruption, deception and conspiracy….


lookout

I believe that the following quotes from City documents explain where the ridiculous 8.14 mgd capacity number came from.


First, from the 2019 Concept Design Report for the plant, on page 8, we have this: “A flow frequency analysis based on the facility master planning and CITY HISTORICAL METER DATA … An average annual flow of 1.0 MGD was observed – with flows being less than 1.15 MGD 95% of the time. A minimum hourly flow of 0.3 MGD and a maximum hourly flow of 8.14 MGD were also observed. These observations along with the separation flows from Cayucos Sanitary District, led to the design flows for the City of Morro Bay”


OK, so they looked at City historical meter data. Now, from the City’s 2019 WWTP annual monitoring report, on page 2-6, we have this:


Historically, the most influential factor affecting flow rate was a metering inaccuracy that resulted in flow overtotalization. A STUDY CONDUCTED DURING 2002 FOUND THAT RATES REPORTED BY THE EFFLUENT FLOW METER WERE CONSISTENTLY OVERESTIMATED BY AS MUCH AS 25%


“During 2002, overtotalization was largely eliminated after a more accurate influent flow meter was commissioned … HOWEVER, ON OCCASION, THE NEW METER ALSO OVERTOTALIZES FLOW, FOR EXAMPLE, WHEN THE INFLUENT FLUME BECOMES TEMPORARILY SURCHARGED AFTER WATER BACKS UP INTO THE INFLUENT CHANNEL BEHIND THE PLANT HEADWORKS”


On page 4-3, we have this: “ON RARE OCCASIONS, HOWEVER, THE INFLUENT FLOW METER ALSO REPORTS ERRONEOUSLY HIGH VALUES … ON THOSE OCCASIONS, THE ORIGINAL, POTENTIALLY INEXACT DAILY FLOW FROM THE INFLUENT METER IS STILL REPORTED IN THE CIWQS1 DATABASE FOR COMPLIANCE-EVALUATION PURPOSES. However, when plant personnel suspect, or have direct knowledge that the influent flow reading is inaccurate or compromised, they provide a narrative about the event in the monthly monitoring form, and include an estimate of the actual flow along with the computational rationale for the estimate. Often, this corrected value is based on effluent flow readings adjusted downward to account for that meter’s overtotalization.”


It seems likely that the reason we do not see a ridiculously-high number like 8.14 in any of the annual monitoring reports is that it was corrected for that reporting purpose. However, if one only looks at the meter data, those inaccurate high numbers will still be there. Very sneaky way to justify a ridiculously-oversized plant.


IDBOUND

Morro Dunes is a great Rv campground I always try to reserve the #L sites ….the aroma of the water treatment taking place on the other side of the fence compliments my morning coffee and cigarette .. Kidding aside I’m glad Morro Bay is building an oversize sewer system .. And hopefully some oversize water wells …living in North East Morro Bay I could look out my window and see the current city water well mechanical water level gauge .. Now if Cambria would get their act in gear some 40 plus years later still having a water wait list .. All of North central coast beach communities have over abundant ubdrilled untapped water in the foothills at their edges ….unfortunately all of this new infrastructure will mean more houses and businesses will flock to Morro Bay .Real estate prices will just keep climbing to unrealistic levels and the GOV will receive massive amounts of money in the form of property taxes and selling city utilities to the masses


Calzonian

this ship has finally sailed. it took the will of good folks who think globally of the present and future well being of Morro Bay to replace the ancient and failing, primary wastewater treatment plant. Going forward, this city can not be the 1950’s industrial dump it was. Enjoy the fresh air and clean beaches with the rest of us or move on.


lookout

Failing? Seriously? Look at the online monitoring reports. The most recent one says this: “Throughout more than three decades of operation, the treatment plant has consistently outperformed expectations for wastewater treatment based on regulatory standards. During that time, there has been no indication of deterioration in plant performance, and effluent quality has consistently exceeded the performance criteria anticipated in the original design.”


Rambunctious

Look…Morro bay has to have a way to get rid of their poop and the unelected coastal commission ordered us to move it inland…if anyone has a beef with the cost and how it all went down…stop voting for people that push the hard decisions onto an unelected board like the coastal commission…we live in a one party state…you have only yourselves to blame for crap (no pun) like this….


lookout

This whole thing was corrupt from the very beginning. Few people know the details of how the project for an in-place upgrade was changed to a project to build a new plant, partially on the existing site, and partially on land next to it.


Absolutely nothing about building a new plant ever appeared in any Council or JPA agenda, and there was never any vote on any motion mentioning a new plant. City staff (and likely some cohorts in the Council) totally deceived the public by referring to the change to a new plant as “modifying the project box“.


Check out the agenda and minutes for the September 8, 2009 JPA meeting. That’s when and where it happened, all accomplished with a vote on item B1, Old Business: “Consideration to select WWTP Upgrade Project Modifications as identified in the Carollo Facilities Master Plan – Amendment No. 1 for inclusion in the project EIR”


diamond

Morro Bay has alway been corrupt. The Reddell brothers got away with copious amounts of good ole boy backroom insider building “deals” when Dale was mayor and long after. The acting planning commisioner, John Patrick Fennacy, 50, who later pleaded no contest in a grand theft case involving an elderly client, embezzled at least $65,000 from the client’s trust fund. Fennacy, who owned a local BBQ resturant, ran his business from property owned by Dan. Welcome to Morro Bay. City hall is still ripe.


obispan

True dat. Local corruption not unique to Morro Bay but somewhat amplified. You don’t need to dig too deep to dig up a a lot.


sardonicsentiment

Confused about the meaning of the word “replace”? The new system, is taking the place, of the old one. Get it?


Messkit

If the old plant is still capable of processing 16+ million gallons, and currently only processes 1+million gallons…what need was there for any other facility, or even the suggestion Morro Bay/Cayucos needed one?


If the Coastal Commission said “move it inland”, that was hardly a justifiable reason to build a new plant, on a major feeder creek to the estuary. That barely makes it “inland” at all. I won’t even mention them building it, directly behind an elderly care facility. As anyone familiar with lower Higuera past Prado, there is nothing pleasant about that.


lookout

Yes, and none of this had to happen. Here’s a document that Morro Bay residents concerned about the size and cost of the WRF should check out: “Final Report Sewer Collection System Master Plan Update, May, 2006”. It’s available on the City site. Check out Page 4-13, where you will find this:


“ …focusing on the priority areas where significant I/I issues were identified is a good start to addressing the impacts associated with infiltration/inflow. It is difficult to determine a realistic goal for I/I reduction, and the benefits relative to costs for I/I reduction must be weighed. However, with focused efforts on reducing I/I in these identified areas, the City should expect to achieve an overall 40 to 50% reduction in I/I, at a reasonable cost. This degree of I/I reduction is significant, and certainly would benefit the City by preserving collection system capacity for needed sanitary service, and averting added treatment costs at the wastewater plant.”


So, 15 years ago, the City knew full well that major reduction of wet weather flows into the sewer plant could be achieved at a reasonable cost. 15 years ago the City knew that dealing with the I/I problem would help control wastewater treatment costs. Yet, the necessary work to achieve that 40-to-50% reduction WAS NEVER DONE.


Now, 15 years later, residents are not only continuing to pay to process large amounts of rainwater as sewage; they are paying for a ridiculously-oversized plant, the sizing of which was based on a single instance of major inflow and infiltration of rainwater into the sewer system.


What’s wrong with this picture? How about gross negligence and corruption? The City does not need to build a huge wastewater treatment plant. It just needs to follow its own advice and fix the pipes – but then there would be no excuse for a bogus project that is obviously intended to benefit a few at the expense of the rest.