Morro Bay’s sewer plant appears to be unpermitted

August 23, 2021

Writer’s Note: This is part three of a story, told in installments, about the corruption involved in Morro Bay’s water reclamation facility. Part one is about Morro Bay City Council’s bait-and-switch.

OPINION by CYNTHIA HAWLEY

Figuring out what’s going on with the City of Morro Bay is like peeling an onion, one layer at a time, looking at a series of actions separately to connect the dots.

So far, we’ve looked at how the council members pulled off a bait and switch during the 2018 rate increase process — how they told ratepayers that they would raise rates to “replace” and “rebuild” the existing sewer plant and then contracted a month later to build a sewer plant with over twice the capacity to process sewage as what we have now.

The public record also shows that the city council members withheld information on the actual treatment capacity they contracted to build and lied about the size of the plant. See the first two reports.

Now let’s look at how it happened that there is no coastal development permit (CDP) for this project.

There are two reasons for this situation stemming from actions by the Morro Bay City Council and the California Coastal Commission.

The first reason that there is no CDP for the project is a direct consequence of lying about the size of the treatment plant.

The city council told agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the low interest loan agreement and the Coastal Commission that they were building “0.97 million gallons per day (MGD) WRF.”

Under the heading “Project Description,” the coastal commission’s staff report for the July 11, 2019 permit hearing states “construction of new 0.97-million-gallon-per-day average daily flow tertiary- treated wastewater treatment and water reclamation facility … .”

The city council used this 0.97 number — which is the average volume of sewage the city produces a day — as a description of the project and did not disclose the actual design capacity of the infrastructure to process sewage.

The problem is that they contracted to build a sewer plant with the structural capacity to process a total of 16.28 million gallons a day. See the contract’s “Exhibit B Scope of Work” and the Basis of Design Report  — both of which show two headworks each with the capacity to process 8.14 million gallons a day. Search for 8.14.

The consequences of this deception were direct and foreseeable:

1. The coastal commission issued the city a coastal development permit for “construction of a new a 0.97 million-gallon-a-day average daily flow…” sewage treatment facility.

2. The city is building a sewage treatment facility with two headworks that can process a total of 16.28 million gallons of sewage a day.

3. There is no permit for construction of the treatment plant that the city is building.

4. This construction is illegal because development in the coastal zone without a coastal development permit is not allowed and government agencies are not exempt from Coastal Act requirements.

The legality of spending public money on an unpermitted, illegal public works project is another story.

Second, the coastal development permit that was issued is “void” because the coastal commission did not have the authority to vote on it at the July 11, 2019 permit hearing.

Two state laws set the rule that the coastal commission’s legal authority to vote on a permit application is triggered by the distribution of the project plans.

Until the plans for a project have been given to them at the hearing, the coastal commissioners do not have the legal authority to vote on the permit application. There is no way to know whether a project is legal without the plans.

At the commission’s July 11, 2019 hearing on Morro Bay’s permit application, the project plans were not provided to the public or the commissioners. Instead of rescheduling the hearing until the plans could be provided, commission staff recommended that the commissioners should approve the project without the plans and should direct the city to produce the plans later to the commission’s executive director for his review and approval.

This is what the commissioners did. They voted without the plans — consequently without authority — to approve the permit application.

See for yourself. Page 1 of the coastal development permit that was issued to the city names the project elements that were permitted: Subdivision of land for facility, construction of wastewater treatment/ reclamation facility, construction of sewage pipelines and lift/pump stations, construction of underground recycled water injection wells, maintenance of and modifications to the existing ocean outfall, operation of the new water reclamation facility and overall system and related components, decommissioning and demolition of the existing wastewater treatment plant and restoration of all affected areas.

Then check out the exhibits that were attached to the July 11, 2019 staff report for the coastal commissioners. Click on Exhibit 3 “Plans” to see that plans for the eight project elements that were permitted were not included in the staff report and were not distributed. The commissioners voted to approve the city’s permit application anyway.

When a government agency like the California Coastal Commission votes without the legal authority to do so, that vote is “void” —  it never happened because the agency didn’t have the power to do it, and the vote has no legal effect. The coastal commission has been to court before for taking action without authority. Here’s a quote from one lawsuit.

“… if the Commission takes action that is inconsistent with, or that simply is not authorized by, the Coastal Act, then its action is void.”

There was no legal approval of Morro Bay’s permit application and consequently no legal coastal development permit.

So, because the city lied about the size of the project there is no coastal development permit for the project they are actually building. And because the commission voted to approve the permit application for a nonexistent project without the legal authority to do so the vote was void, and the permit — for a project that isn’t being built — could not be legally issued.

The coastal commission’s permit hearing was the only hearing for this project and there were no plans disclosed. The plans for the project elements listed above have never been disclosed or discussed or approved at any public meeting by any land use agency. It’s pretty simple how the city and coastal commission pulled this off but it’s another story.

And it’s important to keep in mind that there are no general plan use permits for either the treatment facility or the pipelines. The city never applied for them and the county and the city’s planning department let it slide.

Meanwhile, the city council is spending millions of dollars of public funds on an unpermitted major public works project.

What a mess. Or, as Sir Walter Scott put it “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”


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Boldguy

The people of Morro Bay elected these officials, as well as Coastal Commission Staff, who in the beginning of this process, told the public that the new relocated sewer plant wouldn’t be that expensive, that’s the true bait and switch!!!

Cayucos Sanitary District saw this outcome from the beginning and ran away from this boondoggle as fast as they could:)

The Kool-Aid that Morro Bay residents were given is that the plant needed to be moved at all, it’s seems to be forgotten that the original upgrade that was proposed had a price tag of $35,000,000, the cost prorated between the two communities.

I’ve been told that had Morro Bay had kept good relations with Cayucos, and if the plant actually needed to be relocated, they could of been added to the Cayucos plant at a cost of around $50,000,000!!!


dobbsey

Still conflating “annual average” with “peak design” I see, and still not understanding the concept of redundancy… more reason to be thankful that this project is in the hands of competent engineers, and not click-baiting lawyers (for the moment)


lookout

The author has already responded to this point in regard to your comments on an earlier article. She reviewed the concepts of design and structure versus actual use, and noted that it is total capacity that is at issue.


In addition, I will point out some more facts, some of which were also documented in response to your earlier post.


First, it is a well-documented fact that Morro Bay’s sewer lines are in horrible shape, and allow the inflow of huge amounts of rain water which then has to be processed as sewage. Without that inflow, the peak flow that has to be processed by the plant would be much, much lower.


So, why didn’t those “competent engineers” advise the City to fix the pipes, and then build a smaller, less expensive plant – a plant that is the correct size to process actual sewage, not sewage PLUS large volumes of rain water? Good question.


Then, there is the fact that the “competent engineers” failed to reduce the 8.14 mgd number to account for the departure of Cayucos and the resulting significant reduction of inflows to the plant.


We can get at least a rough estimate of how much smaller the plant should be to account for Cayucos’ departure by doing a quick calculation based on the town population. This rough estimate will be based in part on the assumption that reports of rain water inflow into the sewer lines of that town are true, and that the inflow rates are comparable to those of Morro Bay.


The population of Cayucos is 2,630 and the population of Morro Bay is 10,578. That gives us a total of 13,208 residents in the population that WAS served regularly by the plant. Now, Cayucos has its own plant. The population of Cayucos is almost exactly 20% of 13,208. Reduce the 8.14 mgd number by 20%, you get about 6.5 mgd.


Even 6.5 mgd is likely to be too high, because the 8.14 mgd number it’s based on is likely too high. As documented in my response to your earlier post, page 2-5 of the

City’s 2019 WWTP annual monitoring report clearly explains that inaccurate metering has often resulted in significant flow overtotalization – meaning it is quite likely that the 8.14 mgd number is incorrect. See page 2-6 of the City’s 2019 annual WWTP monitoring report for details.


dobbsey

I, too, will refer readers to my response to your original post, where the flaw at the foundation of your entire argument is laid bare, and remains woefully misunderstood and uncorrected.


To your reply here: rain water intrudes into every modern sewer system on planet earth. Designers understand how to calculate the magnitude of this intrusion, and plan accordingly. The author (whom I see we’re going to pretend isn’t you…) proposes that we raze the city, destroy every road, and wreak havoc on the local economy, in order to replace a functioning piping system decades before the end of its useful life, to the tune of tens of millions dollars of taxpayer money. It sounds like we ought to be investigating “the author” (ahem..YOU) for corruption.


And what’s the point of this article, anyways? The city council skirted the permit mandate by making the plant…bigger? Larger construction project only invite more permits, mandates, inspections, fees, and beurocracy. Have you ever even built anything?


In this very article, you state:


1. The coastal commission issued the city a coastal development permit for “construction of a new a 0.97 million-gallon-a-day average daily flow…” sewage treatment facility.


…and that’s exactly what they’re doing. That you cannot understand the difference between a “peak” and an “average” flow is not the Council’s problem.


lookout

First of all, I am not Ms. Hawley. Yes, there are many knowledgeable people who understand that what she is saying is true.


Now, let me address your comment: “To your reply here: rain water intrudes into every modern sewer system on planet earth. Designers understand how to calculate the magnitude of this intrusion, and plan accordingly.”


Evidently the “competent engineers” and designers failed to read the City of Morro Bay’s 2006 Sanitary Sewer Master Plan (SSMP), which included a major study of sewer inflow and infiltration in the various drainage basins (see Chapter 4).


On page 4-13, we find this statement:

“… 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.”


Yes, that is an official City report. No, the City did not follow through.


Now for your comment: “… proposes that we raze the city, destroy every road, and wreak havoc on the local economy, in order to replace a functioning piping system decades before the end of its useful life, to the tune of tens of millions dollars of taxpayer money.”


Not so. First, let’s now take a look at some material from a 2007 City mailer, “Water and Wastewater News” In that, the City said, “We prepared a Collection System Master Plan, adopted by the City Council in 2006, that gave us a blueprint for the upgrade, repair and rehabilitation of the System to provide the ability to collect and deliver wastewater to the treatment plant long into the future. MOST OF OUR COLLECTION SYSTEM IS NOW OVER 50 YEARS OLD AND IS SHOWING IT’S AGE. THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE SYSTEM IS COMPRISED OF VITRIFIED CLAY PIPING. A NUMBER OF PIPELINE SEGMENTS ARE NOW TOO SMALL OR HAVE CRACKS, OFFSETS AND SIMILAR PROBLEMS. Many of the problems can be attributed to land movement,”


Again, that’s an official City document. A sewer “decades before the end of its useful life?” Hardly. It was in rough shape then, and that was 2007. The lines have continued to deteriorate, as shown clearly in recent sewer line inspections. Later SSMP’s demonstrate that very, very little has been accomplished.


Regarding your statement, “… raze the city, destroy every road, and wreak havoc on the local economy” . No. Modern methods of sewer rehabilitation include “trenchless” solutions such as “pipe bursting”, which The City has used on a few occasions. Your “competent engineers” will know about those methods. See the SSMP reports for information on which lines were rehabilitated in this way.


As to cost, how much cheaper would it be to build a much-smaller plant that is the correct size to process actual sewage, with inflow of rain water reduced by 40% – 50% – the reduction that the City’s 2006 SSMP says can be achieved “at a reasonable cost AND with plant size adjusted to account for the departure of Cayucos?


cynthiahawley

One kind of deceit is when a person who has a duty to disclose a fact gives information that is likely to be misleading when the fact that must be disclosed is missing. Check out Civil Code section 1710.


So, 0.97 million gallons a day is the average volume of sewage Morro Bay produces. Yup – what is being constructed can certainly handle that average daily flow.


But when the average daily flow of sewage the town produces is used to describe the permitted project, it is deceptive because a description of what is in the project plans to be built is left out — the structural capacity to process 16.28 million gallons a day. That’s what’s being built.


It’s like permitting a new road as an average daily volume of 20,000 vehicles and leaving out how many lanes there will be when the lanes in the plans have the capacity for 40,000 vehicles a day.


lookout

So true. Both the average daily flow capacity AND the peak wet weather flows should have been in the documents made available to the public, and they weren’t. It seems obvious that the larger number was kept out of public view because it is so out of line.


IDBOUND

As the old saying goes “Build it and they will come ” Morro Bay Cayucos Cambria San Simeon etc etc have been stifiling growth for many decades .Sure there is quite a few residents that don’t want these towns to grow .The county and these towns/cities need the increased revenue to pay their bills maintain infrastructure and the over compensated wages and retirements the owe their employees .As with all water treatment plants in SLO county this one is being built near a river/creek so as to not break in tradition .Slo county does not have too many rivers/creeks especially those with year round flow , but makes for convient place to pump the end product underground or in emergency situations .The current plant near the ocean is a big no no for current environment controls ….The last pier in California to pump a towns sewage just past the breakers was Pacifica in the SF bay area it stopped pumping raw sewage in the early 2000s …That was the large pipe seen under California ocean piers for almost a century


lookout

I have four major concerns with the above post.


First of all, the article is not about growth. It is about massive government corruption that, if not stopped, will cost Morro Bay residents a huge amount of money that many cannot afford and further embolden people who ignore laws for their own benefit. Corruption is not OK, and neither is funding an illegal, oversized, overpriced project on the backs of the residents of a small town. If some people want growth, they need to pursue it honestly and within the law.


Second, let’s get a key fact straight. We are NOT talking about “pumping a town’s sewage” past the breakers, or anywhere else besides the sewer plant. The sewage goes to the current plant, where it is treated, and then the TREATED EFFLUENT is discharged via the ocean outfall. Is that a problem for the environment? Read the City of Morro Bay/Cayucos Sanitary District Treatment Plant Offshore Monitoring and Reporting Program reports. You will find that the discharged effluent poses no threat to anything or anyone. For example, the reports refer to the “… benign nature of the effluent discharge”, and to the outfall’s value as an “artificial reef.”


Third, regarding the discharge of treated effluent via an ocean outfall, Morro Bay’s plant is NOT the last California plant to do that. The Point Loma plant in San Diego uses an ocean outfall. There is plenty of information about that plant available online, if you are interested.


Fourth, a river or creek might make a “convenient” place to pump the end product underground, but that does not make it a good idea. The subject creek runs to the Estuary, and if there is a spill of untreated, or insufficiently-treated sewage, guess where the bad stuff goes.


blackjack

“They” are already here to stay in the form of tourists by the 1000’s. Put some parking meters on the embarcadero, raise bed tax on vacation rentals etc rather than promoting high density development would generate $ and keep the character of the region more intact.


Rambunctious

So what?….issue a new application…a bigger plant capacity makes sense to me…its not as if they are going to make us tear it down…this sounds like a scream in the dark by the no new sewer crowd….to me…


lookout

So what? I’ll tell you what. This is a prime example of massive government corruption, and every time people get away with something like this, they are further emboldened, and start looking for more ways to funnel taxpayer money into the pockets of the members of special interest groups.


I know that SLO County has been very corrupt for a very long time, but that doesn’t make this latest, or any other example of government corruption OK. Don’t just give in to the corruption. Fight it!