Passing by on Hwy 1, work on the conveyance system for Morro Bay’s new sewer project looks a bit like a scorched-earth approach.
What used to be a continuous stretch of mature cypress trees along the highway and bordering a dedicated bike path has wide areas clear-cut of all vegetation. The scene, even viewed at 55 mph, is stark and has many in the community deeply concerned that the Water Reclamation Facility project is violating its permits and trees and the animals that live in them are paying the price.
But project and city officials say that every tree that’s been removed has been documented and reviewed by the Coastal Commission, which took control of the project’s Coastal Development Permit (CDP) on appeal.
Trouble with the Trees
Morro Bay is a “Tree City U.S.A.” designee, and one could lovingly call us “Tree Hugger USA.” So Estero Bay News brought these concerns to the folks managing and constructing the City’s largest ever public works project at $144 million, and counting.
“It’s not finished yet,” was the initial reaction of Public Works Director, Greg Kwolek, Carollo Engineering’s Paul Amico, and Stephen Mimiaga of Mimiaga Engineering Group, who is managing the treatment plant construction for Filanc/Black & Veatch. But all acknowledged the appearance of the tree removal work along the power plant bike path is ugly.
They likened it to a painting that is half finished and urged everyone to be patient because all the removed trees will be replaced, and the bike path restored. It’s also a bit like renovating an old house, which Kwolek said he is currently doing — the more you tear into the walls or the plumbing, the more problems you find.
Tree Cuts Necessary
The trio assured that only trees that are necessary to build the pipeline are being removed. The CDP says 21 trees, and Amico, checking on bills paid to the pipeline contractor, said they’ve paid for the removal of 24 and there’ll likely be at least one more taken out for the pipelines.
All removals were approved before the chainsaws roared to life.
As evidence, they supplied an email string concerning those three additional trees, where they are, and why they must be removed (for worker safety and to clear the way for a large crane that will be used to help bore under Willow Camp Creek).
That chain ends with Kevin Kahn, the Coastal Commission’s Central Coast District Office Supervisor in Santa Cruz, approving the extra removals. His only concerns are to make sure they replace the trees with native species and re-plant “…in the vicinity to replace those that are lost.”
They also noted that PG&E, which owns the high voltage power lines crossing overhead to a substation on the power plant property, has taken out trees over the years, as regular maintenance.
For the WRF, they’ve also had to trim back numerous trees overhanging the construction zone to clear a 70-foot wide “right of way” area for the job and make room for the heavy equipment that will be brought in to do the trenching work.
When the bike path was built, the route through the site was mapped to avoid taking down trees, resulting in a pleasant, meandering path through a copse of mostly cypress trees.
Critics have claimed that as many as 41 trees have been cut down, but the job supervisors disputed this and said there are some stumps that were cut long ago that might be part of those counts but were not part of the WRF; and others weren’t considered trees.
What is a Tree?
Part of the boggle for citizens might be in the official definition in this regard of what exactly is a “tree?”
In the CDP a plant is considered a tree if it has a trunk diameter of 6-inches or greater at “breast height” or DBH for short — roughly 5-feet off the ground.
So if a tree is less than 6” DBH, it isn’t considered a “tree” per se, but a “bush” or a “shrub” and the permit allows the clearing of whatever bushes or shrubs necessary.
Kwolek said, “The City is confident that we are in full compliance with the CDP.”
Mimiaga said that all extra trees that have been cleared were done with the approval of the Coastal Commission district supervisor and the project biologist. “A few dead trees were taken out prior” to the WRF work, he said.
And a separate tree company has also gone on site recently and done extensive trimming under contract with PG&E, but Amico said they would not be let back in while trenching is going on.
The City has a Plan
Kwolek said they would be submitting a tree replacement plan to the City Council early next year that would decide what type of trees and where trees would be planted as replacements. We lost another tree when the pipeline trenching recently reached Main Street.
At Main and Quintana, he said, there was a tree in the way of the pipeline alignment that they decided to take out. “You have to decide, do you take out the tree or realign the pipe?” Kwolek said.
Realigning the pipes would’ve added time and costs to the project. They also have more shrubs to remove.
Another possible misunderstanding on the subject is that the environmental impact report doesn’t go into the level of detail that would name all the trees to be removed, but just makes a general statement requiring replacement.
Mimiaga pointed to a thick set of stamped engineering plans sitting on a table at the construction office trailer at the new treatment plant site and said those and the final CDP approved by the Coastal Commission are the project’s controlling documents, not the EIR.
Many Eyes on WRF Work
As one might expect, the WRF construction work has many eyes upon it for the tree removals but also at the way the costs have risen from the initial $126 million estimate that was the subject of the Prop. 218 vote in July 2018, to now $145 million. But the loss of the cypress trees lining the bike path might hurt more for many. After all, the Monterey Cypress is the “Official City Tree” here in “Tree City U.S.A.”
EBN was sent a lengthy email from a reader who’s been critical of the tree removals, as well as the City’s overall approach to the project. We sent those to the city manager for a response and Public Works Director, Kwolek responded, giving much of the information reported above with regards to the permitted tree removals.
Included in the reader’s email, was the following statement, “Morro Bay is not only a Tree City but also a Bird Sanctuary. Apparently, the city officials really don’t give a hoot about this destruction. Care to report on this latest mess?”
Kwolek responded: “Not true that the City doesn’t ‘give a hoot’ about tree removals. Much time has been spent reviewing environmental impacts such as removal of trees. Additionally, any unavoidable tree removals are expected to be mitigated through the City’s tree replacement plan, which will support the planting of new trees and will be brought to City Council in the coming months.”
Coastal Commission’s in Deep
And as for the Coastal Commission’s role, Kwolek cited a passage in the CDP: “Trees not marked for removal within the temporary construction easement limits and over 6” DBH shall be protected in place and may be trimmed per the project arborists recommendations. Trees smaller than 6” DBH may be removed by the contractor as part of clearing and grubbing operations within temporary construction access limits in coordination with project biologist and arborist. If delineated, environmentally sensitive areas shall be cordoned off per biologist’s recommendation.”
And with the City reporting to the Commission on something as routine as removing a tree, it appears the Commission is deeply involved in the project. That’s probably fitting as the City moved the treatment plant away from the current site on Atascadero Road, piping raw sewage 3.5 miles and 300-feet in elevation gain to a new plant sited on pristine ranchlands sitting outside the City Limits, in order to comply with the Commission’s orders.
Build Back Better
And there could be more trees and bushes removed once the City has finalized the easement with Vistra, which cost the City $200,000, to allow a bypass sewer main, and the reclaimed wastewater pipe and injection wells to be installed on the power plant property.
Amico, the pipeline project manager, said they will be boring underneath Willow Camp Creek, a seasonal stream that starts on the east side of Hwy 1 in the hills above Morro Bay Boulevard, travels underneath the highway into a cement culvert that runs between Quintana and Hwy 1.
That creek dips under Main Street and emerges on the bike path where it crosses into the power plant and eventually flows to Morro Creek.
The culvert under the bike path is silted in and the project will clean that out too. That should help with the frequent flooding that leaves slippery mud on the bike path. “The intention is to leave it better than it was,” Amico said.
Kwolek added, “We’re all environmentalists here. Every time you lose a tree is a loss, but it’s a necessary and temporary part of this project.”
Meanwhile, all three urged the public to keep out of the bike path construction site, even on weekends when there’s no work being done. That’s because the pathway is not a public street and holes and trenches don’t have to be covered up with steel plates, as the trenches on Quintana Road have been daily.
In another update on the project, Amico said the micro-tunneling subcontractor, Vadnais Trenchless, was able to finish up the 5-foot diameter tunnel under the Roundabout at Quintana and Morro Bay Boulevard after it got bogged down in early September and the company stopped work for several weeks.
Vadnais was hired by pipeline contractor, Anvil, to bore the tunnel from the site of a former U-Haul store under the Roundabout to Las Tunas Avenue on the other side of the Morro Bay Coffee Co.
When the giant boring machine bogged down, Vadnais dug down in front of the machine’s cutter head, and while they discovered it was missing some teeth, they didn’t figure out what the problem was.
“They didn’t figure out what went wrong,” Amico said. When they started the boring machine back up, it pushed through with no problems.
Mimiaga added, “They didn’t find an obstruction. There was no evidence of anything in the ground to cause this.”
Vadnais last week was filling in the 35-foot deep hole they’d dug at the U-Haul property and packing up its gear.
WRF Not Yet Half Done
So how much longer will residents have this massive construction job going on? Amico estimated they were about 40% done with the conveyance system and Mimiaga said, based on what they’ve paid out so far, the treatment plant was about 43% completed.
The City has until some time in 2023 to finish the job, a deadline set by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which kick-started this project in 2003 when it wrote to the City and Cayucos Sanitary District urging them to upgrade their jointly-owned treatment plant (on Atascadero Road) to a full secondary level of treatment.
That upgrade would do away with a so-called 301(h) waiver under the Federal Clean Water Act. Morro Bay had one of the last active waivers in the entire State of California. San Diego has the other.
Compounded on that order was a 2013 denial of a previous project, and a mandate by the Coastal Commission to move the plant away from the shoreline to avoid coastal hazards.
Zoom-Zoom Goes Boom
On another note, Carollo shutdown its Friday morning Zoom meetings and community updates due to a lack of participation but still has a PR team dedicated to keeping citizens informed. That includes emailed newsletters being sent out.
If readers would like to sign up for their notification list, send an email to: email@example.com or call 877-667-7622 to speak with a representative. The City also has a website for the project, see: www.morrobaywrf.com.