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There are many challenges and options for wastewater treatment. In the case of the Morro Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant, the challenge presented to the City was to upgrade treatment in order to keep the effluent water from being discharged into the ocean, and reused or put back into the water table. 


Here are facts and the history regarding the Morro Bay WWTP planning and design. We will outline assumptions made by the City, then review the actual authority and reasoning for the denial of the proposed wastewater treatment plan by the California Coastal Commission (CCC).  We finally propose an amazing solution at a fraction of the proposed costs that not only makes sense but will become a conduit for real change and an example of what people and an entire community can accomplish. 


There is an opportunity for the City of Morro Bay to reimagine what has been historically viewed as an expensive liability. To accomplish this goal takes political will and considering a simple logical plan.  


Several years ago, we partnered with Dynegy Power to develop the Morro Bay Power 

Plant site reuse plan. During that time, we reviewed various plans and studies for the

WWTP redevelopment. Our intention was to integrate the existing WWTP into the

planned reuse plan converting the existing power plant site into a post-graduate

school of sustainable design that included onsite treatment for all wastewater, 

and a school for water studies. We also had the opportunity to sit privately to discuss

our plan with the California Coastal Commission. During that meeting, the CCC was

impressed by our plan and mentioned that they would be favorably reviewing the

planning for our waterfront project.  


Current estimates for a proposed new plant are not known, nor is there a specific plan or

location finalized. Depending on the design, type, infrastructure requirement, location, etc., new costs estimates may range up to $170 million. This represents an approximate 600% over original budget. In addition, over $600,000 dollars has been spent researching various planning for the WWTP.


Recently, the partner town of Cayucos quit the team sighting serious concerns for ultimate cost and direction.


Cayucos’ District Manager Rick Koon:  

“The resolution reflects the huge concerns of the community with the governance structure,” Koon said. “This is a big project, and big dollars are going to be spent. We have a problem with not having a say in how those dollars are going to be spent.”


Decision to Build a New Plant

The reason given for the City of Morro Bay to proceed in building a new WWTP in another location was that the current plan for the upgrade was denied by the CCC California Coastal Commission. 


Following the denial by the California Coastal Commission of the Coastal Development Permit (CDP) for construction to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant at its existing location in 2013, the City of Morro Bay began planning a new Water Reclamation Facility (WRF). During 2013 and the beginning of 2014, the community defined goals to guide the planning and design process for the new WRF".


We outline (below) the reason for CCC denial and the limited powers of the CCC regarding existing facilities.  



MB WWTP Conditions and Jurisdictional Requirements


Discharge Requirement


WWTP Waste Discharge Requirements (WDR) No. 9815 in December 1998. Since the MBCSD discharges to the ocean, these requirements are primarily based on the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit No. 0047881 and the Water Quality Control Plan for Ocean Waters of California (Ocean Plan). The current NPDES permit is a modified 301(h) discharge permit, which modifies full secondary treatment requirements for BOD5 and suspended solids. Although the modified permit expired on March 1, 2004, it continues to be enforced until a new permit is issued.



Plant Rehabilitation


The original MB WWTP was constructed in 1953. Between 1982 and 1984, it was expanded to its current configuration.


In 2007, a study and plan were completed by the engineering firm Carollo. They conclude the WWTP overall condition of the equipment and facilities to be in a well-maintained condition. “Most of the existing facilities appeared to be in good structural condition understanding with some rehabilitation and upgrades given the existing plant to have the capacity to continue with projected build-out flow conditions. Any of the plant's components can be repaired or replaced without restriction or relocation.” 



California Coastal Commission


During a presentation of the power plant reuse plan (The Plant) to a private hearing at the CCC. The CCC commented that our use plan aligned with their mandate to influence environmental protections while transitioning existing development and traditional technologies and design for water, power, sewer, etc. into new and innovative technologies directly linked to the lowering environmental impact. We mention this as proposed constructed wetland (below) fulfills the same mandates the CCC embraces.  


The California Coastal Commission's (CCC) mission is "To protect, conserve, restore, and enhance the environment of the California coastline". The Commission's goals/planning involvement can be found on their website.



CCC Limited Powers 


A bill in the California legislature to grant the commission a broad power to issue fines was defeated in September 2013. However, legislation attached to the state budget in the summer of 2014 finally granted the authority to impose fines on violators of public-access which could apply to about a third of the backlog of over 2,000 unresolved enforcement cases. There are no incidents on record of the CCC forcing an existing facility to be relocated, let alone a WWTP.  


11/10/10, CCC Letter to Morro Bay Public Services Addressing DEIR Comments: The CCC refers to Morro Bay WWTP as a "New Development". In their specific comments and under project description, the letter states that the engineer's report infers the proposed development plan as “an upgrade” to the existing plant. However, the proposed plan includes replacement of the existing WWTP, then constructing a new WWTP around the original site. The CCC goes on to state, it must be considered and reviewed as “NEW DEVELOPMENT”. 


Under this designation as a "NEW DEVELOPMENT", and as with any new coastal development, the CCC reviewed and responded to the WWTP programming as a new Waterfront Development, triggering all normal review criteria and jurisdictional requirements they would pursue when developing any new project or private development at that location. (See ARTICLE 6. Development [30250 - 30255]   ( Article 6 added by Stats. 1976, Ch. 1330. ) 30250.)


By continuing to operate the existing Morro Bay WWTP does not fall under the jurisdictional authority of the California Coastal Commission. Nor can they force this or any other utility to relocate to a new location or force a financial burden of over 100 million dollars.


The design programming for keeping the existing plant in use while developing a constructed wetland for tertiary treatment fulfills the mission of the CCC including sustainable design and water use; revitalizing existing development and structures; existing low income coastal access; respect for Native American lands; improving local communities; creating local watershed; teaching the importance wastewater reuse; learning center; groundwater table re-infiltration; mitigating local flooding, etc.     



100 Year Flood


There have been various references, statements, etc. made in reporting that the WWTP site is located in the 100-year floodplain map and used as reasoning to relocate the WWTP. Per this flood map, actual flooding occurs as the Morro Creek bed backs up (east of Hwy 1) up during a severe weather event.


Note that the entire neighborhood including the high school, residential, hospitality, parks, commercial and industrial areas are located within the same 100-year floodplain map. This could be a factor when and if considering a new development. However, the existing WWTP, as well as the rest of neighborhood and the high school will not be required to relocate.


If addressing the 100-year flood map pragmatically, civil design programming can be implemented to mitigate the overall flood condition in this area. Increasing the creek bed flow rate, I.E., the addition of flood walls, culvert, etc. reducing obstruction will mitigate flooding in the neighborhood. A more direct approach to eliminating the flood effects at WWTP is constructing a low wall and floodgate around the site perimeter.    



Solutions for Tertiary Treatment 


The existing WWTP plant stays operational and can be maintained. Upgrades to the plant will be done as a phased upgrade on a case by case basis. The discharge obligation for the WWTP plant simply requires water be tertiary (additionally treated) effluent.


The water is pumped to either a mechanical or biological location for finishing. 


Biological finishing is achieved by circulating the effluent through a constructed wetland to biologically clean the water. The existing WWTP is kept in continuous operation, while the construction is completed with a bypass connection. When the constructed wetland is completed, the discharge effluent is simply rerouted into the system for finishing and water reuse. After the biological treatment, all of the water is utilized in sensitive ecosystems, agriculture or re-infiltrated into groundwater table if sufficiently clean.


Constructed Wetland


Situated in the heart of Central California’s coastline is the Morro Creek valley. At the base of the valley is the existing wastewater treatment plant. The City of Morro Bay is located just south the valley and on one of the west coast’s most picturesque bay and wildlife estuary. Morro Bay, with a population of approximately 10,000, is a varied community whose resourcefulness and integrity will demonstrate that a constructed wetland system can be a cost-efficient and environmentally sound wastewater treatment solution. In addition to effectively fulfilling wastewater treatment needs and upcoming state mandates, Morro Bay's innovative wetland system will transform the region seeking solutions and benefits by integrating wetland enhancement and wastewater treatment.


Engineers and scientists challenge the notion that sewage treatment facilities must be large, costly, and unsightly. They believe that natural technologies, such as constructed wetlands, offer better treatment at lower costs, with better aesthetics and less environmental impact, than traditional methods. Start thinking of a sewage treatment park instead of sewage treatment plant.


The benefit and value of this situation having the primary treatment completed. The constructed wetland is used only for finishing the water decreasing overall cost and increasing longevity. Design includes all final treatment, denitrification, etc.     


Constructed wetlands are an effective means of integrating wastewater treatment and resource enhancement, competitive with conventional wastewater treatment alternatives. The Morro Bay WWTP is located at the base of the Morro Creek valley.  This valley and basin topography is ideal for constructed wetland system. There are several natural locations that would accommodate a wetland. We also highlighted a decommissioned tank farm property owned by Dynegy as an example. This property is terraced, with the approximate required area. There is also a pipeline connection from this property to the power plant that may be able to be utilized or replaced.


The constructed wetland system will be the cornerstone of Morro Bay's sustainable effort. Imagine a sewage treatment plant that can revive the valley’s agricultural water shortage, spark stream restoration, create marsh habitat, create pocket wetlands in the Morro Bay valley on critical reaches of urban streams, and provide a world-class wastewater program to study. The wetland is a demonstration of wastewater reuse, ecological restoration, and reuse of agricultural and public service land.


The cost for a constructed wetland can be determined immediately and in total.     


The overall cost for constructed wetland is a fraction of the costs proposed for building a new WWTP at a location still to be determined. Budget costs for the wetland can be provided.


Immediate savings:

  • The entire cost for program design and construction of a new WWTP.

  • Decommissioning and removal of the existing plant.

  • All civil program design and construction of new versus existing sewer alignments.

  • Acquisitions, etc.  


Long-Term Benefits

  • Landmark sustainable treatment facility that will be used for education and demonstration.

  • Wildlife sanctuary.  

  • Local agriculture benefits use of the reclaimed water. This will transform the valley as a guaranteed water supply will be established. Reclaimed water can be sold or by other arrangements for negotiating location of the treatment marshes.

  • Constructed wetlands are easily scalable to discharge tertiary quality effluent for agricultural water supply.

  • Biosolids produced at the WWTP can be transported adjacent constructed wetland for completed composting and agriculture reuse. 



Time to Reimagine Water


The wetland demonstrates wastewater as a "resource" that can be reused and not simply to be viewed as a disposal problem. With this philosophy, a community can move forward to implement a natural process of a constructed wetland system offering transformative solutions and benefit. Imagine intentionally visiting a wastewater treatment site to observe nature and wildlife.


The area in its entirety will be known as the Morro Bay Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary (MBMWS.)   


Water in the enhancement marsh is a host of aquatic vegetation that provides an extraordinary habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, raptors and migratory birds.


In conjunction with famous Morro Bay bird estuary, the MBMWS will act as a home or rest stop for some of these species of birds. The Morro Bay Audubon Society can use the site on a regular basis for weekly nature walks. Docents trained by the Society will explain the role the wetlands play in attracting birds and mammals. The beauty and uniqueness of the MBMWS will be served as an inspiration to local artists, and those inspired by this level of sustainable use. 


Morro Bay will become a model of appropriate and successful wastewater reuse and wetland enhancement technologies. The visitor will come to Morro Bay to investigate its success in wastewater management. College and high school students MBMWS for scientific study.  


Morro Bay's valley will be transformed a lush natural and agricultural area.


Constructed Wetland (example) plan for The Plant University.












Sustainable Outgrowth Learning from the Constructed Wetland


Aesthetics/ Learning Center

One of the most important advantages of constructed wetlands is their aesthetic appeal. The sewage treatment plant of the future doubles as a wastewater treatment facility, a recreational facility and learning center. Constructed wetlands are an attractive alternative to monolithic sewage treatment plants.


Habitat Creation

Constructed wetlands create habitat for bird and mammal populations, and thus to improve the ecological integrity of a wastewater treatment site. When this creation occurs in conjunction with a socially valuable function like sewage treatment, people begin to understand the significance and value of this water machine. 


Increased Cost-Efficiency

Maintenance and labor costs associated with constructed wetlands are significantly lower than those for conventional treatment facilities designed to treat the same volume of wastewater. The sewage flows for 10,000 people are potentially lower, or much lower, with a constructed wetland system than they would be for a conventional treatment system, while effluent quality from those systems is as good or better than that from conventional systems.


Government Response

Constructed wetlands are very popular with the public, but regulatory agencies have been slower to support them, in part because of concerns that their performance may be less effective or less reliable than tried-and-true technologies. The public, and many engineers and scientists would respond by saying that conventional technologies are inadequate in other ways, and there is a clear need for alternative technologies for wastewater treatment.

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