City Holds WRF Open House; Celebrates Finish of $160M Project

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

March 8, 2023

City officials and members of the public took tours of the City’s new Water Resources Facility treatment plant on Feb. 23, marking the completion and grand opening of the most expensive public works project in town history. Photo courtesy City of Morro Bay

Morro Bay residents and City officials celebrated the completion of the Water Recycling Facility Project, marking the milestone in time to meet State deadline to replace its old sewer treatment plant.

An open house and dedication ceremony was held Thursday, Feb. 23 at the project’s treatment plant — called the Water Resources Facility — located on a hillside above the terminus of South Bay Boulevard at Hwy 1.

Dignitaries included the Mayor and City Council, as well as representatives from Congressman Salud Carbajal, and State Sen. John Laird, both of whom played an important part in securing low-interest loans for what’s billed as the largest public works project in town history. 

The City also gave tours of the new treatment facility, which went online in late 2022 and is capable of producing tertiary treated wastewater, suitable for reuse.

Mayor Carla Wixom was excited about the project finally being finished after some 2½ years of construction. 

“It’s astounding,” Mayor Wixom said, “to see the incredible investment that is the new Water Resources Center. As the largest infrastructure investment in City history, this facility is a critical part of providing public services to our community.”

The overall project consisted of the new, tertiary level treatment plant with advanced filtering; some 3.5 miles of new collection and conveyance piping; two new lift stations; a bypass sewer main cutting across the power plant from Front Street to Main Street; and a recycled water pipeline that will return the reusable water to injection wells by Morro Creek. 

Those wells, which have yet to be installed, though a test well was reportedly successful, will inject the treated wastewater into the underground basin, where it will sit for a prescribed length of time in order to be pumped out again and added to the town’s drinking water supply. It’s billed as a drought buffer for the water supply.

“The infrastructure program,” reads a City news release, “involved replacing the City’s existing wastewater treatment plant with an advanced water purification facility that meets state regulations, protects the environment, and can create a drought buffer through a safe and reliable water source for Morro Bay’s homes and businesses in the future.”

Public Works Director, Greg Kwolek, who came here not long after the project got underway, said, “It’s great to see the collective interest from the public as they are finally able to check out the new Water Resources Center we’ve been talking about for years. 

“I want to thank the many people and agencies who had a role in completing the facility and pipelines. This project embodies our commitment to sound water resource planning for our future that meets federal and state regulations. I also want to thank the community of Morro Bay for patience and cooperation through more than two years of construction.”

Construction on what was originally a $126 million project started in May 2020 and was completed in February 2023, with the cost now topping $160 million.

Financing for the project is coming from $138 million in State and Federal low-interest loans (some $69M from the Federal Government) , and some $15.5 million in grants. 

The treatment plant has a capacity of one million gallons a day, according to the City and was designed and built by a partnership of Filanc and Black & Veatch. Anvil Builders was the contractor for the conveyance system, which was originally bid out at $31 million. Filanc/B&V’s original contract was for some $69 million.

The City had been under orders from the Regional Water Quality Control Board to upgrade its sewer treatment to full secondary level going back to 2003. 

Different iterations of a project were bandied about including a simple upgrade, to partial replacement, to a full replacement of the treatment plant at the existing site on Atascadero Road.

But that project, which the City and Cayucos Sanitary District both approved in 2010, was appealed by two Coastal Commissioners and a dozen local citizens and environmental organizations. 

In 2013, the newly elected City Council majority asked the Commission to deny the project, in an unheard of move that effectively killed the project and ruined for good the relationship between Morro Bay and Cayucos. 

Morro Bay and Cayucos parted ways not long after the Coastal Commission decision. Cayucos has since built its own $27 million treatment plant on Toro Creek Road, which opened in June 2021 and no longer uses the old treatment plant on Atascadero Road.

The Coastal Commission’s decision sought to enact a policy on climate change and more specifically sea level rise. The Commission adopted a policy of “retreat from the coast” in response to sea level rise and so-called “coastal hazards” like tsunami and erosion from sea level rise.

The Morro Bay-Cayucos sewer treatment project was the first major California public infrastructure project to move away from the coast to avoid coastal hazards, which have always existed but are predicted to get worse because of climate change.

The move inland increased the costs of Morro Bay’s project from an estimated $58 million to now $160 million and counting (final change orders and cost increases are still pending).

The two agencies have always had a rocky relationship, and the divorce meant each built a treatment plant, but they still jointly own the old plant site on Atascadero Road, as well as an undersea discharge pipeline.

Discussions on how that site will be decommissioned and what will become of the property have been going on behind the scenes and announcements on the future of that prime piece of property are expected sometime later this year.

According to the City’s news release, “The City will decommission the existing wastewater treatment plant near the beach by 2025.”

If readers missed the big grand opening and tour, the City said that due to high public interest, it would be announcing additional tour dates in the future and is speaking to the school district about arranging field trips to the plant.

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