Future of Morro Bay Power Plant and Stacks

I have hesitated, until now, in voicing an opinion about the stacks, and by inference, the power plant itself. It is a subject that has come to the forefront of late, as talk of plans to remove them and the plant and replace them with a battery farm have begun to dominate conversations in social as well as traditional media.

I am amazed and somewhat taken aback at some of the opinions expressed, both in favor of removing them and letting them stay. While there seems to be some middle ground, a certain appreciation or fondness for them, yet an acceptance that they should go, the majority of the opinions seem to be rather polarized and hardlined; i.e. They are as iconic as the rock itself and should stand in perpetuity, or they symbolize an attack on the ecology of nature in general and the bay and city in particular and should never have been built, let alone be taken down at this juncture. Certainly, there are valid arguments to be made on both sides of the debate. Indeed, most of them have been presented in the comments of social media threads already. Sadly, the strong opinions on both sides have generated no small amount of divisiveness, and I suspect some hard feelings as well.
Part of the price we pay for social media, I’m afraid. One can see this sort of thing happening at some level in just about any group you choose to join on Facebook.

So, here is my take on the entire debate about the stacks and the plant. I’ll begin with asking the reader to consider how long the stacks and plant have stood. As of this writing, roughly fifty-nine to sixty-eight years, depending on where you choose to begin the evolution of the site, either from the groundbreaking in 1953 or up to the completion of the third stack in 1962.

In human terms, that is fairly close to a lifetime. For many of us who grew up in Morro Bay, or moved here as children or young adults, they have, like the rock itself, always been there. Some of our best, or worst, memories of Morro Bay are attached to the presence of the plant and stacks, not unlike the attachment to a treasured pet, or perhaps a first car. Some of that same group may also associate them with terrible memories or trauma the rest of us cannot imagine, and seeing them gone would relieve them of the daily reminder of that hurt.

Some others, either those who have come to Morro Bay more recently, or even lived here several decades and view the stacks and plant as a man-made eyesore in paradise, cannot wait until they are gone.

To both sides, I would ask all to consider a few points. First, is that sixty-nine years is not even an eye-blink in the history of Morro Bay. The rock itself is said to be about twenty-three million years old, and the bay itself maybe roughly the same, but who knows for sure. Both are ancient beyond comprehension. Second, consider the land the plant and stacks stand on, and the changes it has gone through over just the past four or five hundred years. The Chumash, and probably other indigenous peoples occupied the area during that time (indeed, they go back much further, thousands of years no doubt.) Later, Spanish and Northern European settlers moved in, pushing the Chumash out and using the surrounding land for their own purposes.

The actual land the plant sits on was nothing more than a marshy bog known locally as The Willows, that would flood during storms and exceptionally high tides, and had little value as real estate until just after the start of WWII. That was when the Army Corp of Engineers began improvements to the harbor, dredging it to a depth that was navigable for small craft year-round and building the embarcadero as we know it today. The dredge tailings and earth from nearby locations raised the land roughly ten feet where the plant stands now, and became the location of the Navy’s amphibious training base until the end of the war.

Following the war, California experienced an unprecedented boom in population and business, creating a demand for electricity equally unprecedented. When viewed through the lens of the time period and the available technology, right or wrong, Morro Bay was as perfect a location to build a steam powered power plant as any engineer could ever hope to find. Solid level ground, a source for cooling sea water protected from high seas by the rock and breakwater, and a nearby discharge point that kept the warmed water from being reintroduced into the cooling system.

Certainly, there must have been some locals who could see the ecological and aesthetic price to be paid and they likely voiced their objections at whatever hearings may have been held prior to the plant being built, but their voices were no doubt lost in the shouts of “Build it!” Again, right or wrong, this was the Fifties. America had exited WWII as the most powerful nation the world had ever seen. Anything was seen as possible and if more electricity was needed to do it, then nothing was going to stand in the way of a power plant next to a sleepy little fishing village that was already beginning to grow and promote itself, and the plant was seen as a windfall tax base. While hindsight may be twenty-twenty, it just cannot be used to view the reasons for the existence of the stacks and the plant.

By now, you can probably guess my thoughts on the subject. I am part of that middle ground. The entire reason that I came to Morro Bay as a five-year-old in nineteen fifty-three was the building of the plant. My father was employed as a painter by Bechtel Corporation and our family, like many others, stayed on after the plant was finished. As others have stated, the stacks were, and still are, a homing beacon for me whenever I return to Morro Bay for a visit. While businesses and buildings and, sadly, my friends depart, the stacks have remained unchanged through almost all of my life, and if they come down in my lifetime, they will be sorely missed. But I also understand the long view. They will come down eventually. Even the finest examples of architecture eventually crumble and utilitarian buildings such as the power plant were never meant to last beyond their planned service life, and that service life has been reached. It is time for the stacks and the plant to go. How and when that will happen has yet to be determined. For certain, just bringing down the stacks will be incredibly expensive, not to mentions very disruptive to the businesses and tourism along the waterfront. I am no engineer, but I suspect they will have to come down in small increments, and not dropped in one measure as we have seen in so many other places. They would seem to be just way too close to the waterfront businesses and the piers to risk a complete implosion, not to mention the health risks to both residents and the bay itself from the concrete dust that may likely contain asbestos as well as other toxic substances. Add to that the hundreds of miles of steel reinforcement bar embedded in the stacks from base to top, and the difficulty in deconstructing them becomes readily apparent.

In closing, I would return to the point I made earlier. The plant, and those of us on either side of the debate, are but the first twitch of an eye blink in time compared to the rock and the bay. Eventually, the plant will be just a footnote in history, pictures in a book or on a computer screen, and no doubt, those who see them will look on them and say, “What were they thinking?” Hopefully they will read the history that accompanies the pictures and think, “Ahh, now I understand.”
Joe Dunlap
Hillsboro, Oregon

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