The sewage plant that just won’t die

The Rock at Morro Bay

The Rock at Morro Bay

I spent Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago hightailing it down to Cayucos for a meeting of the Morro Bay Joint Powers Association (JPA) which includes the Morro Bay City Council and the Cayucos Sanitary District. These are the folks that we’ve been bugging to upgrade their Waste Water Treatment Plant for quite some time now. (Check out the backstory on our website.)

Towards the end of 2008 we acheived a major victory when the Regional Water Quality Control Board ruled not to extend their waiver. This was a great success for environmental groups like us that had advocated strongly for a firm regulatory rule that makes polluters not only pay, but stop polluting! If you get our newsletter you may remember the victory chants, which I assure you were matched with victory dances here at Otter Project headquarters.

Now cue the obnoxious 80’s sountrack of “they’re baaaaaaack…”

We got recent news from our friends down in Morro Bay and at the NRDC (who have been very active on the issue) that there are complications. The current plant, which they plan to upgrade, is in a flood plain. Ooops.

Well you can’t build a sewage treatment plant in a flood plain and cross your water quality loving fingers and hope it doesn’t rain. The JPA is proposing to turn the plant sideways, where it will sit three feet higher than previously thought; the problem with this is that 1) it’s only three feet higher (ok for a small flood risk–not going to help you much in a big flood event) and 2) we lose some of the features that we fought for in round one, like on site bio-composting.

On top of that, there were some glitches in the public noticing process so stakeholders, including community members that live right next door to the plant, and groups like us, who have a long standing interest, had to hear this through the grapevine instead of an e-mail or a phone call from the City itself. Add a healthy distrust of local politicians, what seems to be a real hankering in the community for a plant that includes water reclamation capabilities, and an impending Water Board timeline that the JPA spoke of with a tremble in their voices, and we had ourselves a pretty raucus meeting for a Tuesday night.

Flippancy aside, it’s a difficult issue–and one we’re not even sure we should be involved in. Our role was to advocate for a treatment plant that provides tertiary level treatment before spewing waste out into prime otter habitat–and we definitely won that battle. Now the community needs to address new information in a way that suits them best–and as long as tertiary treatment remains on the horizon, it should be a local decision.

But what if they build a less than ideal plant in a less than ideal place because we pushed for a deadline? A flooded waste water treatment plant doesn’t do water quality much good, no matter what level it’s capable of treating to.  

In the end, The Otter Project, NRDC, the local Sierra Club and other environmentalists suggested taking an additional 60 days to consider all options before opening an environmental analysis (conducting an EIR) of the modified project. This was on the basis of poor public noticing (the grapevine called the day before labor day weekend, which didn’t leave us with much time to do research), the fact that moving the plant changed some significant details, and that the community should have time to consider the new information. The JPA begged to differ, however, and voted in favor of going ahead with the environmental analysis of the modified plan.

For those interested in this issue, there will be plenty of opportunity to get involved–EIRs have public comment requriments. I think after the snaffu with public noticing last time, the city is being more careful about noticing too–if you ask nicely, they should add you to a list of stakeholders. So it looks like this issue will stay open for a while longer. Any thoughts on what The Otter Project’s involvement in this should be?

About Allison

I am the new Executive Director of The Otter Project in Monterey, California! Originally from the Bay Area, I went to school in San Diego, and came back north to Monterey for graduate school, where I found my calling: saving sea otters! Working for The Otter Project combines my passion for environmental policy with my love of animals. When not advocating for sea otters, I enjoy yoga, volunteer wildlife rehab, reading, and spending time with my cat Alyssa, who, for the record, I did not name. I have been with The Otter Project since November of 2007.
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