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Rate hike coming to pay for new Morro Bay water treatment plant

Greta Mart/KCBX
Morro Strand Beach, directly across the road from the existing plant.

UPDATE: This week Morro Bay officials opted for a cheaper solution to the city’s wastewater treatment needs. In a 3-to-2 vote, the Morro Bay city council directed staff to pursue construction of a new sewage treatment plant estimated to cost between $123 and $136 million, That option won’t have advanced water recycling capabilities, as did another one of the council’s choices, priced at $167 million. But faced with public pushback, officials decided they could pursue phasing in water recycling at a later date. Since the estimated costs to build the facility were so high, the council also asked for a second opinion on the project’s total estimated cost.

Original story: This week in Morro Bay, city officials are weighing options for construction of the city’s new wastewater treatment plant, and staff says “substantial rate increases will be needed to pay for the new facility.” 

The existing plant, located across the street from Morro Strand Beach, was built in 1954, with upgrades in 1964 and the early 1980s. Since 2003, the city has needed federal waivers to keep the facility in operation, as it doesn’t fully comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

In 2005, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board - the state entity that oversees municipal water treatment facilities - agreed it would issue another waiver if Morro Bay would upgrade its plant by 2014. The city says it has been working for over a decade to replace it.

Staff initially proposed to demolish the existing plant and rebuild in the same location. In 2013, the California Coastal Commission denied and squelched that plan, citing numerous conflicts with the state’s Coastal Act.

On rare occasions, the wastewater pumped out into the ocean 3000 feet from shore isn’t treated well enough. The facility is, according to CCC’s documents, is “currently covered by a modified NPDES permit with a Clean Water Act Section 301(h) waiver, which waives the Clean Water Act minimum treatment requirement for full secondary treatment for all discharge.”

“The city must build a new wastewater treatment plant that will cause sewer rates go up to $140 a month,” Morro Bay City Manager David Buckingham said Tuesday. “We need to base our future rates on the maximum possible cost, and then we don’t necessarily have to raise rates up to that level, based on grants we get and competitive bidding and other things that should drop the price of the total project.”

Last summer, the city council chose an intended location to build, adjacent to Hwy. 1 at the end of South Bay Boulevard. That started a five year countdown to complete the project, coinciding with the expected 2021 expiration of the city’s permit to discharge treated water from the current facility near the beach.

Now city officials have five options in front of them, ranging in cost from $124 to $167 million dollars. At the low end is a plant that meets the minimum requirements, a wastewater treatment plant with no water recycling capabilities. Or the Morro Bay City Council could opt to spend about $43 million dollars more and build a facility that fully recycles the treated wastewater, and make the city’s water supply sustainable. And it would free the city from the yoke of depending on the State Water Project for much of its water supply.

Either way, Morro Bay residents can expect sewer rates to gradually more than double by 2022.

If the council opts to build a facility with advanced treatment and recycled water, customer water rates will increase by $34 per month, said Buckingham.