Who is responsible for cost of Morro Bay landslide?

November 2, 2021

Writer’s Note: This is part six 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.


As you may know, there have been two landslides at the City of Morro Bay’s wastewater treatment plant construction site. One in May 2020 that involved an estimated 15,000 cubic yards of earth and a second slide during Jan. 2021 of 17,000 cubic yards of earth.

Both slides happened in the same place — the hillside above the city’s unpermitted excavation of  over 100,000 cubic yards of the hill. Why did this happen and why was the cost of the slides — $1.13 million so far — relegated to the city, that is, to ratepayers?

First of all, the site is formally designated as having a high landslide risk potential by San Luis Obispo County. Information about this is in reports, maps, the SLO County’s Local Coastal Program Estero Bay Area Plan and Coastal Zone Land Use Ordinance.

Everybody involved knew or should have known that  removal of over 100,000 cubic yards of a hill to make a flat place for a sewer plant would mean the risk of causing landslides. But that’s what they did. And the landslides happened — a matter of cause and effect.

Here’s how everybody knew about it.

A Geotechnical Engineering and Geologic Hazards Report written for the contractor said that land at the site is “prone to both shallow soil slips and larger rotational landslides. No known or mapped landslides are on the site. However, there are several landslides within close proximity to the site, within the same geologic formation.”

Here is a clip from a SLO County Local Coastal Program map that designates the area north east of Morro Bay, including the project site area with orange dots, as a Geologic Study Area.

The Project Environmental Impact Report (EIR) explains that designation as a Geologic Study Area in this case means the earth is subject to high landslide risk potential. Search for Geologic Study Area at page 3.10-5. Here’s what it says.

The preferred WRF site is located within the Estero Area Plan and the Geologic Study Area (GSA) combining designation. That site is located outside of the Urban Reserve Line (URL), which is coterminous with the boundary between the City and County. The GSA designation when applied to lands outside the URL signifies that the area is subject to high landslide risk potential.”

Here’s a snippet from the County’s Geologic Hazard Map that was included in the Project EIR showing the “WRF Location” to be a “Landslide Risk.” Search for landslide risk.

The Notice of Preparation of the EIR filed by the City with the State Clearinghouse says this project is:  “… construction of wastewater treatment facilities on sloped terrain that could be subject to potential seismic and geologic hazards, including ground shaking, liquefaction, soil instability, soil erosion, expansive soils, and landslides.” See page eight.

And according to the Oct. 24, 2017 Preliminary Geotechnical and Geologic Hazards Report prepared for the City of Morro Bay, “The site is located within an area designated by the County of San Luis Obispo as a Geologic Study Area (GSA) due to the potential for slope instability and landsliding.” Search for GSA.

Given that the information was there for all parties to consider in their decision-making processes, who pays for it? Well, the Morro Bay City Council members knew this information so they are accountable. They chose the site. But in terms of who pays for the costs to deal with the landslides, the design-build contract says that the contractor pays for it.

Under section 3.10.2 of the contract, the contractor pays for things like landslides where the subsurface conditions 1) were actually known, 2) were ordinarily known to exist, 3) could have been reasonably discovered, or 4) are generally recognized as inherent in the area. Click on Agenda Item C-1 scroll to page 17.

And the “high landslide risk potential” at this site was actually known in black and white, was known to exist, could have been easily discovered by any inquiring mind, and was inherent in the area according to the maps.

Then, why did the city end up paying for it? A spin was applied.

City staff, the city attorney, and the Morro Bay City Council members apparently all agree that since the “soil slip was due to an unknown ancient landslide” that was unknown to the contractor, under the contract the city is responsible for the costs because Section 3.10.2 of the contract makes the owner responsible for changed/unknown site conditions. See the City Councils Feb. 23, 2021 meeting agenda.

By reducing the question to whether the existence of an “ancient landslide” was known by the contractor rather misses the mark.

How responsibility is determined under section 3.10.2 of the contract involves a broader question — whether subsurface conditions that cause landslides were actually known, were ordinarily known to exist, could have been reasonably discovered, or are generally recognized as inherent in the area. And the facts show that the subsurface conditions were known to be at high risk of landslides. Perhaps the City Council members will reconsider agreeing to pay for the landslides in light of this violation of the contract. $1.13 million is a lot of money.

But this is just the beginning. The potential costs in terms of both money to manage unstable land and harms to the Morro Bay National Estuary could continue during the life of the project. Sediment runoff from the excavations, landslides, and slips is directed by project design into the stream that flows within about a mile into the Estuary.

It is my opinion that the City Council members who made secret deals and wasted tens of millions of dollars in unnecessary pipelines to put a sewer plant on this site in the Estuary watershed without a use permit and without a grading permit are and will forever be accountable for these costs and harms.

Morro Bay should not have paid for the landslides.

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Has anyone else looked at that report cited by Ms. Hawley? It’s a big file to download, but the contents are pretty interesting. It says that the “rock mass” under the project site has “intersecting discontinuities” that can include “joints” and “shears” and “faults” and contact between different rock types. It also says the orientation of those things is random and unpredictable. I don’t think a person has to be a geologist to figure out that landslides aren’t the only thing to worry about. What about earthquakes?

THIS is a place to build a sewer plant???

Then, there is that 3 mile long pipeline. When people expressed concerns about that, the project people said hey, no worries, we will have a leak detection system. Great, but what they didn’t talk about is how long it could take to fix the pipeline after a major quake.

So, when an earthquake makes it impossible for the plant to run for a while and/or makes it impossible for the sewage to get to the plant, where does the sewage go? Do they let it back up into homes and businesses? Do they have a valve at the lift station so they can send it all into the ocean?

They are building on an unstable site in earthquake country. They want to pump all the sewage 3 miles uphill to the new plant. They left the Estuary out of the main body of the EIR and only addressed it in response to people’s comments. They didn’t bother to get a grading permit or a land use permit. Are these the dumbest people who ever took on a public works project, or is there something more going on here?


Don’t worry, just like in Los Osos the ratepayers and property owners will come up with the cash.

Does the City carry Errors and Omissions Insurance to cover elected nice guys who override technical data provided by licensed experts? This subject in itself should apply across all segments of government and or need a local chapter of D. S. Anonymous to bring into light this big problem.

Easy answer – you can start with CHRISTINE JOHNSON, NOAH SMUCKER and especially JAMIE IRONS. The next batch of blame should go to voters that voted for this trio of fools. All three are still in town, so make sure to thank them profusely. Also, don’t forget that JAMIE IRONS “promised” the new sewer plant was cost effective and only 30M than renovating the old plant. Perhaps he was bad in math, as the new sewer will easily be over 130M more.

The moral of the story is never trust the city Council cesspools of Morro Bay. These pompous self-serving entities successfully quadrupled the price we would’ve/should’ve paid If they hadn’t blown up negotiations with the good people of Cayucos. So here we are paying for what should be gold plated pipes. Thanks Morro Bay city Council. Let’s see if any of them resign to start working as a consultant somewhere else. Waiting for them to vote themselves a raise now.

I remember very well an incident years ago, when a small, and very successful company with state-of-the-art sewer plant technology offered to build a new plant for $30,000,000. They even did a basic design at their own expense, but the Council at that time seemed absolutely determined to go with another engineering company – one to which at least one elected official and one high-ranking staff member had close connections.

At the meeting at which the Council decided not to go with the $30,000,000 option, one of the Council members said he thought the city needed to stick with the company they had already started dealing with. That was, of course, the one connected to the city officials, and it offered a much-more-expensive option.

Were they being paid off? They sure gave that impression, and on more than one occasion.

Who’s responsible?

The voters of Morro Bay whom elected the knuckle heads that stabbed their neighbor Cayucos in the back and claimed that the plant needed to be relocated!!!

Notice that Cayucos Treatment Plant is up and running and for a fraction of the cost per ratepayer had they stayed with inept Morro Bay!!!

Moving the plant inland could have been a sound decision IF Morro Bay had honest elected officials and staff. The risks of catastrophic flooding at the current site are real, but city government’s response to the problem has been a dismal failure and a betrayal of the trust of the residents of Morro Bay.

Unfortunately, Morro Bay has long had a dishonest council majority, and dishonest staff people at the highest levels of city government. Instead of going for one of the more reasonable and appropriate site choices, they picked one that is absolutely ridiculous – and for very suspect reasons, as Ms. Hawley’s earlier articles demonstrate.

There were far better alternatives. For example, the Rancho Colina site looked very promising but that deal was, in the opinion of quite a few people, deliberately sabotaged by city government; namely the mayor. As Ms. Hawley has pointed out in earlier articles, for some reason, Morro Bay officials really want that South Boulevard site.

The current plant is already in a FEMA flood zone, but things are worse than they appear. The existing FEMA flood map focuses on the risks of flooding from Morro Creek. The agency is currently at work in SLO County updating its flood maps, to address the risks of ocean flooding due to sea level rise, El Nino, king tides, and storms. However, they haven’t gotten to Morro Bay yet.

Meanwhile, the geniuses in charge of the WRF project claim that putting the plant on the South Bay Boulevard site gets the critical infrastructure out of the coastal hazards zone and away from ocean flooding risks. Actually, it does not, because all of the town’s sewage has to be pumped 3 miles uphill and inland to the new plant.

So, where did they locate the pumping station? They put it on the same property as the existing plant! They may be moving the plant inland, but they have, in fact, totally failed to achieve the goal of protecting the town from the potentially-disastrous results of major ocean flooding. They might as well not build the new plant at all.

The project engineers say they have located the critical pump station components two feet above the FEMA base flood level. However, it’s likely that the results of FEMA’s current work in the County will include base flood levels at the site that are considerably higher than the ones shown in current maps. Obviously, this should have been taken into account by those involved, but it wasn’t.

That’s how things work in the most corrupt county in the country.

I walk by that lift station they are building a couple of times a week while out with the “ex” and the dogs on our way to the beach and just laugh at the rationale the City used to move the plant when they are building the central lift station on the same site. What idiots-or liars. Once the City decided to build a new “reclamation” facility at the high point along highway 1 it made more sense at that point to just pipe the sewage to the Men’s Colony plant. I believe that option was #4 on the list of project sites and alternatives. And once the sites along Morro Rd flopped that would have become the #1 option I believe. What happens and what has already happened is the people responsible for the poor decision making are already gone (city council members) or will be gone (city staff) when the public realizes they got screwed over. So there is no one to blame.