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KCBX Two-Way: Morro Bay's wastewater treatment decisions

Greta Mart
The current plant on Atascadero Road in Morro Bay must be replaced.

Morro Bay officials recently decided upon a location for the city's new wastewater treatment plant. The city council opted for the inland South Bay Boulevard site, which will cost approximately $25 million more than if the city challenges a host of state agencies and insists on rebuilding in the current, beachside location. 

To learn more about this pivotal vote, KCBX News spoke with San Luis Obispo Tribune reporter Nick Wilson, who has been covering this story for several years. We began by talking about Nick's September 23 Tribune story outlining the wastewater treatment situation in Morro Bay.

WILSON: So this story I wrote was in advance of the big meeting that happened on Tuesday [Sept. 26, 2017]. They had a old sewer [treatment] system by the ocean that's really fallen apart and they're risking some violations because basically how they treat their sewage. [The city has] permission to do what they're doing now with the understanding that they're going to build a new sewer [treatment plant]. They've got a couple of different agencies looking at them, going “you need to get going on this but we're sort of steering you away from that ocean site.” Which members of the public have some problems with because it's a lot cheaper to build there. They have an existing infrastructure.

KCBX: Tell me about the loan program that Morro Bay is eligible for...does that have any stipulation about the location?

WILSON. It does not, other than it’s a federal EPA loan, so they have to have a site identified in order to move forward with their application. They've sort of pre-qualified for it and now they have to submit a more specific application. And so that's why this decision on Tuesday was kind of critical to move forward on this and pick a site because it's a $82 million dollar EPA loan, which doesn't cover their entire costs, but it's a big chunk of it - maybe around half or more than half of the entire cost. And the interest rate is really low, compared to municipal we're looking at about 2.6 or 2.7 percent for the federal loan versus maybe five percent - which is a great deal. So they're up against the clock on this because they have a July deadline to file that application with the EPA.

KCBX: July 2018?

WILSON: Correct. So less than a year, and they still have to complete an EIR [environmental impact report] on the site they have ultimately have picked now, but they were still deciding this within the last week. It usually takes about a year to do an environmental review - they think they can do it in about eight months with an expedited process. They were thinking, “if we don't get a decision in by November 1 about the site, we're risking losing that $82 million dollar low-interest loan, which definitely lowers your ultimate cost.

KCBX: So what happened at this week’s special city council meeting?

WILSON: I think it was around 200 people who showed up - which is huge for a Morro Bay city council meeting, sometimes you have five or six people in the audience. To have 200 people with signs and groups...a lot of people showed up arguing either for that potentially cheaper coastal option. And then other people saying, “you know what, it's time to stop messing around with where to build this. We know that inland say has a higher chance of approval. We know it doesn't carry environmental risks.” That's another thing, with the coastal site you have potential for flooding, tsunami...those kinds of issues. And I think this is just - I ran into Morro Bay Mayor Jamie yesterday at an event, and it seems like this has been the key issue in Morro Bay for years now, and it seems like this is a celebration of sorts. And the fact that they've gotten to this point - granted that not everyone in the community agrees, but it's been a long time coming to really just fully invest, fully move forward with one sites. They've gone back and forth on a lot of different sites and a lot of different struggles with getting to this moment. So from a city planning and infrastructure viewpoint, I think there is kind of a celebration at this point.