Morro Bay violated laws in approval of wastewater treatment plant

November 15, 2021

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


Since my earlier reports about the lack of permits for the City of Morro Bay’s wastewater treatment plant, the city continues construction of the facility at the north end of South Bay Boulevard. The city’s evasion of required grading and use permits from the county has led to landslides and soil runoff into Morro Bay National Estuary’s watershed.

These photos were taken Oct. 25, 2021, just after dawn at the treatment plant construction site. The photo on the right shows the runoff from the site headed for the stream that flows into the Morro Bay National Estuary within about a mile. The estuary is already threatened by sedimentation.

In order to build this project on this site in spite of its proximity of the estuary and the known instability of the ground, the Morro Bay City Council members illegally evaded the county’s permitting process altogether and approved an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that illegally left the estuary out completely — as if permitting and the estuary didn’t exist.

In the beginning, city staff knew they had to get a general plan use permit from the county, and then started the application process. But, somewhere along the way someone decided to skip it and the county and the California Coastal Commission went along with it.

In an attempt to bolster the fiction that the city was not required to get a general plan use permit and a grading permit, former City Attorney Joseph Panonne and County Attorney Jon Ansolabehere cited a Shasta County court case for the idea that the city is exempt from the county’s land use laws.

In an email message Mr. Ansolabehere claimed that, “The county doesn’t have any land use or building code permitting authority, plain and simple” and the “City of Morro Bay is immune from the county’s building and zoning codes for its wastewater treatment project.”

In effect, Mr. Ansolabehere claims that the city is exempt from having to get county use and grading permits for this project because the exemption established by this Shasta County court preempts the County’s Coastal Zone Land Use Ordinance. But it doesn’t.

The court-made exemption is not a law that was passed by the state Legislature. The Shasta County court only implied that it existed. It doesn’t strip the county of its authority over land use in its territorial jurisdiction and doesn’t make the City of Morro Bay immune to the county’s land use laws.

The site for Morro Bay’s sewage treatment plant is in the coastal zone and the California Coastal Commission has certified the County’s Local Coastal Program including the Coastal Zone Land Use Ordinance to carry out the Coastal Act in San Luis Obispo County. The county’s ordinance implements state law. Not to be preempted as claimed by Mr. Panonne and Mr. Ansolabehere.

And the reality is that the Coastal Act and the County’s Coastal Zone Land Use Ordinance make it perfectly clear that government agencies are included in the definition of “person” and are — just like any other developer — subject to Coastal Act and County Ordinance mandates. They must apply for and obtain required permits.

Where exemptions exist they are clearly listed in the county’s ordinance and an exemption from land use laws for government agencies that want to build public works projects in the county’s unincorporated area is not one of them.

In fact, SLO County’s Local Coastal Program and Coastal Zone Land Use Ordinance have special use permit requirements for public works projects, public utility facilities, and projects in geologic study areas — areas at high risk of landslides — all of which apply in this case and all of which were evaded.

Wastewater treatment plants are public utility facilities under the county’s coastal framework for planning (search for wastewater) for which a development plan is required.

And public utility facilities are “special uses” which means there are extra standards and permit processes that are required in order to avoid “creating unanticipated problems or hazards.” Which is exactly what happened here. Two landslides on the site triggered by unpermitted grading pose imminent serious threats to public safety and to the Morro Bay National Estuary into which all runoff from the site will flow.

The project required a grading plan under the county’s ordinance because it involved more than 50 cubic yards of earth-moving (over 100,000 cubic yards) and an approved grading permit was required before grading could begin.

Because the site is a geologic study area due to high landslide risk potential, the project was required to have a geology and soils report submitted with the use permit application that was to be filed with the state geologist. Special standards are applied to development in areas “where geologic and soil conditions could present new developments and their users with potential hazards to life and property.”

All of these laws were knowingly violated — as if they did not exist — and as a result, the grading and construction proceeded and continues  based on engineering plans for which land use and grading permits do not exist.

How could correct engineering for the grading and construction of this project have been designed without the information and data needed and required for permitting public works projects, public utility facilities, and projects in areas with high risk of landslides?

How is protection of the public health and safety and the National Estuary possible when this project on this site was engineered and is being constructed without the essential geotechnical and environmental data and information that was required to have been produced for permitting the Project — but was not?

And why didn’t the Morro Bay and county attorneys inform the City Council members and the Board of Supervisors of the mandated permitting processes in the Coastal Act and in the county’s own Coastal Zone Land Use Ordinance?


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Regarding the comments by Rambunctions and Derasmus, below …

This project is obviously intended to make a few people rich while doing terrible harm to the people of Morro Bay and to the environment. It’s an incredibly stupid design in an incredibly stupid location. Keep exposing the crimes and don’t let them get away with it. Good on ya, Ms. Hawley and CCN.

Beyond that, I’d like to point out that it’s not smart to throw good money after bad. You CAN stop this disastrous project. We all know who should pay for that – the people who lied to the people of Morro Bay, sneaked around arranging things behind closed doors, and broke laws all over the place for their own personal gain.

Don’t let them get away with it. There’s more than enough evidence for some really good lawsuits. If it isn’t stopped now, it will get more and more expensive to deal with the fallout because:

1. The project is not going to do what it was supposed to do

a. It was supposed to get the wastewater treatment infrastructure out of the coastal hazard zone. Does it do that? Nope. They put the pump station for all the sewage on the property where the current plant is. If that goes out, the sewage can’t get to the new plant, in which case, the new plant is useless. Beyond that, they decided on the elevation for the pump based on an old FEMA map that hasn’t been updated with coastal hazards yet (that’s due to be done next year). Oops!

b. It was supposed to provide lots of drinking water through a scheme to inject the treated water into the aquifer and recapture the same water with the city wells. Does it do that? Nope, for multiple reasons. One is that the scheme is based on a faulty model that some consultants put together. They admitted that there were a few caveats, including these: “There is very limited record of groundwater levels available for model calibration”. “There is limited data concerning the aquifer properties.” “The offshore aquifer geometry and connection to the ocean is not known”. Ah yes, a very reliable model. Oops!

Still, the city kept basing more studies on that model, claiming this was a great idea, until finally, last year somebody told the truth. Another news publication reported an interview with a high-ranking City staffer who said, that there might be a day when the city can stop using state water, but that day isn’t here, and that the city only plans to do injection 3 or 4 days a month to retard seawater intrusion into the aquifer. The rest of the treated water gets dumped into the ocean. Oops!

2. The project will do things it’s not supposed to do.

a. When that 3-mile pipeline breaks during an earthquake, there will be no way for the sewage to get to the new plant. Where does it go then? The city claims that a broken pipeline won’t be a problem because there will be a leak detection system. Seriously? Oops

b. That new plant is on some incredibly unstable land that is going to shake like crazy in a quake. There’s a link to a particularly damning report in Ms. Hawley’s last article. That report, describes in great detail just how bad it is. What happens when the new plant can’t function due to an earthquake and/or more landslides? With unstable land like that, it shouldn’t take a very big shaker. Then, there’s the damage to the Estuary. Oops!

At the risk of repeating myself, it’s an incredibly stupid design in an incredibly stupid location


To lookout and others:

You point out all of the alleged malfeasance and bad decision making, etc…so what is it you are proposing, exactly? Please be specific and tell us how if you were handed unilateral authority what you would do to implement a solution that would, (1) be feasible from a design and engineering standpoint (2) be affordable, (3) and satisfy all of the regulatory agencies.

Again, at this point it is not enough to point fingers and “Monday morning quarterback” everything, what would you do to realistically fix the problem?

As for the myriad theories of kickbacks, follow the money, someone in office is getting rich off of this etc…if that is your point as well, please offer evidence of criminal wrongdoing. If that is not your issue then ignore it and focus on the fix.


What would I do to fix the problem if I had unilateral authority? I’d get rid of the people on the City Council who are obviously working for special interests and not the people of Morro Bay. I’d replace them with decent, honest, intelligent people.

That would be all I’d need to do. They’d take it from there, and start actually looking out for the people of Morro Bay – what a concept.

The first thing they’d do is to get rid of the staff people who are so obviously working for the special interests, and replace them with more decent, honest people.

After that, I suspect they’d take on the jerks at the water board – in court, if necessary, and make them back off – which should be pretty easy, given that their excuse for threatening all those fines is indefensible.

Then, the new Council would take the time necessary to find an intelligent, appropriate solution. Morro Bay CAN do that IF it can ever get a Council and senior staff who aren’t sleazos.


So, you really don’t have a specific solution other than a vengeance fueled purge of City hall and then hope for the best? Just as I suspected, a lot of sound and fury.


Nope. Not the case at all. We are not talking vengeance. We are talking about stopping crime, and putting public officials and special interests on notice that it will not be tolerated – AND hopefully making them pay back at least some of the taxpayer money they’ve stolen and are stealing. They are literally picking taxpayer pockets. Not OK.

If someone picks your pocket on the street – steals your wallet with all your money and credit cards, you are going to want something done about it. You aren’t just going to look the other way. Making sure the thief is arrested and prosecuted is not vengeance. It gets the crook off the streets so that said crook can’t keep stealing more wallets and harming more people. You might even get some of your money back..

If the city government and their special interest pals get a pass this time, they’ll keep looking for more ways to steal taxpayer money, which is exactly what they’re doing right this minute.

I have ideas for a solution, and so do some engineers I know, but they need to be considered by an honest, ethical City Council. Without that, nothing good is going to happen no matter how many great ideas people might have.


Okay what the hell lets rip it all out…call in the bulldozers Cynthia….


Really Cynthia…give it a rest. It’s over, the sewer is going in. Case closed. Move on!


The Coastal Commission was for the Plant being moved, regardless of environmental or monetary cost!!!

In their infinite wisdom, all the bad parts of the project were ignored, due to the Morro Bay Council willingness to spend what’s getting closer to $200 million versus the $35 million that the original upgrade to the existing plant was to cost”(


That’s why I think they’re in on the scam, fraud, whatever you want to call it involved in this project.


The coastal comm was in favor of moving the plant but was actually putting some heavy thought into leaving the existing one where it was and up date it, that was untill the former mayor jimmy iron asked the comm to cancel the permit, he wanted to move it, the cc was upset with that turn of events as a lot of time had been spent on working to keep it where it is at.


This brings up some interesting questions about the two major state agencies that are SUPPOSED to protect the environment from the disastrous harm that will come from a terrible project like this. I’m talking about the Water Board and the Coastal Commission. They don’t seem to pay any more attention to the law than the city and the county.

Where were they when the city decided to ignore the fact that the plant site is on really, really unstable ground next to a really, really unstable hillside – right next to a stream that’s part of the Estuary watershed?

Where were they when the city got away with ignoring the Estuary in the WRF Environmental Impact Report?

Where were they when the city and county illegally evaded required permitting processes; namely, land use and grading?

If the city had been forced to address the Estuary in the EIR and/or had been required to go through the processes involved in getting the land use and grading permits, it would have had to do studies that would have shown the terrible damage that this project is going to cause to the environment, and the project would never have been allowed. The state agencies let them get away with skipping those things.

It looks to me like the corruption involved in this project goes way beyond the city and the county to the state level. Something major is going on behind the scenes. As a friend of mine keeps saying, “follow the money”. Who stands to get rich from this ridiculously-illegal project?


Yes! Very muddy waters. Look at the backgrounds of those “chosen” for the Water Resources Board. The board has long operated as an entity only focused on leveling fines. How many times has sewage dumped in the creek from the prison, here’s your fine! Zero accountability. Ultimately, taxpayers pay the fines.

Jorge Estrada

The general public knows ?????????????????? and pays the bill.