Major Landslide At City’s WRF Site

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.

July 7, 2020

Photo provided by the City of Morro Bay show a landslide that happened May 5 during grading of the land for the City’s new sewer treatment plant. The 15,000 cubic yards of earth that slid was originally estimated at twice that size. 

A landslide at the site of Morro Bay’s new sewer treatment plant has opponents crying avalanche and City officials calmly dealing with the over $130 million project’s latest hiccup.

According to the most recent quarterly project report, “On May 5, 2020, a crack or separation on the southern tip of the slope being excavated was observed.

“The event has been classified as a soil slip or landslide with a volume of approximately 30,000 cubic yards (C.Y.). The soil slip was evaluated by several geotechnical firms and the issue has resulted in a change to the grading plans for the upper area of the site.”

That initial estimate has now been cut in half to 15,000 cubic yards, according to the City Manager. A large commercial garbage dumpster holds 3 cubic yards, so at 15,000 C.Y., the slide was about 5,000 dumpsters worth

Work on the now over $70M treatment plant began March 20 on hilly rangeland above the end of South Bay Boulevard at Hwy 1. Contractors Filanc/Black & Veatch have been digging away with dozers and excavators at a hillside that must be graded flat to create a site for the plant’s buildings and equipment, and compacted for earthquake safety.

The contractor has since dealt with the slide. “Soon after the evaluations were completed, the contractor began excavating the slip material and stockpiling it for eventual transfer to the erosional feature area,” according to the report. “Dealing with the soil slip and design changes has a cost, but it has not yet been determined who will be responsible for the additional costs [i.e., City or design-build team, or shared cost].”

Assuming the City (ratepayers) will have to cover some of this unknown added cost, it would be the fourth round of “change orders” for the project that’s barely a couple of months into a 2-year schedule.

“Since the issue occurred,” reads the quarterly report, “the focus for everyone involved has been finding a solution to the problem.”

Asked about the slide, City Manager Scott Collins told Estero Bay News, “The slide has been addressed and we will work through the issue of how much it will cost and whether the City or the Design-Build team is responsible for the costs soon; likely in the several hundred thousand dollar range.”

Collins noted that another issue the project has bumped up against is compounding the problems caused by the landslide; a situation involving the State Department of Fish & Wildlife over an already eroded area on the property that the State is treating as a wetland.

“We are working through a permitting hang up with California Department of Fish and Wildlife,” Collins said

“They reviewed our EIR [environmental impact report] back in 2018 and did not have any issues with the project at that time.”

That was then, but now is apparently a different story. “Fast forward to June/July 2019,” Collins said, “Coastal permit required us to check in with regulatory agencies again. Army Corps Of Engineers and Regional Water Quality Control Board had no issues.

“However, CDF&W required the City to go through process of determining if CDF&W had jurisdiction on an erosion feature [not related to the slide area]. That process is just now wrapping up in July [typical process should be a month or so]. We have not been able to access that part of the construction site as a result of the CDF&W processing delay.

“Therefore, we may have additional costs related to stockpiling dirt, as the dirt from other portions of the site, as well as from the slide area, will go into erosion feature area.”

The quarterly report states, “Every day the contractor cannot access the erosional feature is impacting the Project negatively, and the City and Program Manager are doing everything possible to expedite this process.”

Collins again estimated that stockpiling dirt would cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but, “This will also require discussion with the Design-Build team about responsibility for costs.”

Once again increased costs won’t affect the rates being charged to cover the project, a $41 a month surcharge on top of water rates that have been steadily increasing annually. Rates now are $191 a month for water and sewer for just 5 units of water.

“Overall,” Collins said, “the slide and CDF&W processing delay combined costs should not impact the total budget of the project, as there is remaining contingency in the WRF facility component of the project.”

Those contingencies are quickly being chewed up, as the last change orders, some 26 for a total of $5.9 million, were also partially paid for out of contingencies.

The issue has project opponents raising the alarm. In statements sent to the City Council for its June 23 meeting, several project critics chimed in.

Cynthia Hawley wrote, “…The only work on the ground you’ve done so far is a seat-of-the-pants mess…”
“There is a law and good reason why you are supposed to figure out ahead of time if a hillside is stable enough to cut into without a 30,000 [since reduced to 15,000] cubic yard landslide. There is a law and reason why you are supposed to plan ahead of time where to put the dirt you cut out of the hillside before you start digging it up.”

Dan Sedley, writing for Citizens for Affordable Living said, “CAL believes it is unfair to blame the Department of Fish and Wildlife for the permit delay to fill in a stream bed. It was City Council’s decision at the urging of City staff and/or the project manager to not gather other agencies’ permits before getting the Coastal Development Permit from the Coastal Commission. It was the City Council’s, City staff’s, or the project manager’s decision to begin grading before having the CDF&W permit in hand. That was a gamble, and it didn’t pay off.”

As for the slide, “The landslide is another error that should have been avoided with a core sample. We do not see that a core sample was taken at any point. Was a sample taken? If so, what were the results? If a core sample was not taken, why not?”

Another project critic, Carole Truesdale, said she’d stayed up all night studying the project EIR and quoted from its “Geotechnical & Geological Hazard Report,” authored by Yeh & Associates Inc., back in October 2017 — “A landslide [about 100 feet across] is present on east-facing slope west of the proposed northern WRF area and northeast of the southern WRF area.”

She added, “Additional costs associated with this landslide is the second major delay surrounding this project and, Morro Bay ratepayers should not be held financially responsible for project management incompetence.”

Collins said they notified the Coastal Commission about the landslide and got the OK to work through it. “Shouldn’t be any issues regarding our permit and will not stop the project,” Collins said. “Main issue and cost is the moving and stockpiling of the dirt.”

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