Is Morro Bay the New Los Osos?

A drone flying over Morro Bay, California at sunrise

Full Disclosure: I’m the co-founder of Save Morro Bay, an organization that opposes the Morro Bay Water Reclamation Facility as currently proposed. Save Morro Bay recently launched a legal initiative to count and verify approximately one thousand water/sewer increase protest letters the City threw out.

Though low-key compared to other races throughout San Luis Obispo County, the 2018 council and mayoral race in Morro Bay reminds me of tumultuous times in neighboring Los Osos. The politics are similar, but different at the same time: Morro Bay has a sewer, though it’s antiquated. Until recently in their three-decade saga, Los Osos didn’t have one. Residents in both communities were concerned about the rising costs and expenses. There were warring factions between proponents and opponents. Neighbors stopped talking to each other. The controversy was almost always addressed in lowered voices and whispers in public settings. Residents — sometimes posting anonymously — attacked each other on the local blogs.

Today, the discussion in Morro Bay is not about whether or not we need a sewer. The conversation is more nuanced, driven by technological, economic and geographical considerations. There is strong community consensus on what Morro Bay needs, but not on what residents are able to afford. Unlike Los Osos, the political discussion is not conducted under the dark clouds of litigation, a contentious special recall elections or poorly written local measures. In fact Morro Bay, residents overwhelmingly approved water/sewer rate increases in 2015 to pay for a $75 million wastewater facility. Now, the project has nearly doubled in total cost after the City delayed design and construction for three years.

Ironically, Morro Bay’s project delays weren’t caused by resident initiatives.

So why are some Morro Bay residents still comparing what’s happening in their town to Los Osos? There‘s one reason.

The more we delay on vital public infrastructure, the more we pay in construction and labor costs. The Los Osos wastewater saga went on for over thirty years. With project delays, costs undeniably escalated, which in turn adversely impacted the community. But in Morro Bay, the “we delay, we pay” slogan is hypocritically invoked to the point of tragic satire.

Organizations like Morro Bay Water Future (MBWF) often warn about delays as a result of opposing water/sewer rate increases or electing candidates that oppose the Water Reclamation Facility. But they never talk about delays enacted by their City Council. MBWF is comprised of former campaign volunteers for the currently elected Council.

One of their members recently posted on Nextdoor, “Never before has our city made it this far in 15 years of trying. We have a site. We have a Final Environmental Impact Review. We have developed a plan solid enough to put out for bids, hire contractors, apply for loans, and obtain permits. The staff and current council are aligned. If you told me the stars were aligned, I’d say Amen.”

While it’s true the City is closer than it’s ever been to building a new Water Reclamation Facility, the project remains incomplete and problematic. Despite applying for a federal loan on this premise, the effectiveness of the plant’s reclamation component remains an open question and has not been fully studied. The proposed site is also one of the furthest locations away from the city. The further the plant is, the more expensive it gets. Just because the project has gone out to bid doesn’t mean all the necessary boxes are checked.

The MBWF member also wrote, “The specter of history repeating itself, that another 15 years could go by, and another gargantuan increase in financial burden is not inconceivable. In fact, it would put us squarely in the company of our neighbors in Los Osos.”

She may be right to an extent, but not for reasons she might expect.

In 2005, the Los Osos Community Services District (LOCSD) advanced further than Morro Bay did with their wastewater project that a groundbreaking ceremony took place — that is, before three of their board directors were recalled in a narrowly successful recall election. The community was almost evenly split on on the proposed plant location, which was situated in the middle of town. At the time, staff reports indicated there was no other feasible site for the Los Osos wastewater project.

After the new LOCSD failed to move forward with a project, a state law was passed to transfer design and construction authority to the County of San Luis Obispo. After engaging in a more comprehensive and organized process, the County was able to find a more suitable location for the project within only five years. According to District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson, the previously selected site (“Tri-W” or “mid-town site”) was “socially and environmentally infeasible.”

In other words, just because the project has advanced further in the process doesn’t necessary mean it’s the right fit for the community.

In 2017, the City hastily assembled a peer review panel to address escalating project costs. One of the peer review panelists was John Waddell, Construction Division Manager and Project Manager for the Los Osos
Wastewater Project. Waddell was part of a panel that told the City, “The biggest contributor to cost at the [City’s currently proposed site] is the site itself. Pipeline and earthwork costs there are very high. The most effective way to reduce construction cost is to go back to near or on the existing WWTP site.”

Perhaps we should be like Los Osos. Maybe we should be like Los Osos when the County took over the project. Whether or not you agree with their decisions, at least they followed the process in the correct sequence.

If City Council candidates want to follow a similar process, why are some of them being accused of repeating the mistakes of Los Osos before the County assumed responsibility?

The answer is remarkably simple: politics.

On November 6, vote for candidates based on informed decisions, not fear.

TOAST Magazine Publisher, columnist and consultant from Morro Bay, California.