Spending on Morro Bay’s new sewer project passed another milestone, even as progress on breaking ground on a new treatment plant remains stalled in bureaucratic limbo.

At the City Council’s Dec. 10 meeting, in an update on the so-called “Water Reclamation Facility” or WRF, the total monies spent on the project since the City Council abandoned its previous project in January 2013, now tops $14.5 million ($14,579,794 through the end of October 2019), which is some 11.66 percent of the overall budget, now pegged at $125.9 million.

Add in costs for a previous project that was abandoned by the City Council in 2013 and ultimately denied by the Coastal Commission and the City has spent more than $16 million attempting to fulfill a mandate from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, to upgrade the treatment plant to full secondary treatment levels; and a mandate from the Coastal Commission to move it away from the coast to avoid “coastal hazards,” and in anticipation of sea-level rise due to climate change.

Last October, the latest chart shows, the City spent more than $1.5 million but a footnote to that line item said, “Monthly expenditures do not include invoices from the design-build team (Overland Contracting) or Program Manager (i.e., Carollo).”

Though it’s somewhat of a moving target, the project’s $125.9 million estimated total cost is the amount of money the ratepayers confirmed under a July 2018 Proposition 218 vote. The actual project might come in less than that. If costs run significantly over, another rate hike and thus another vote could be needed.

Meanwhile, the treatment plant, slated for agricultural lands above the northern terminus of South Bay Boulevard near Highway 1, remains in limbo, as two federal agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service — work out the level of review required under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

EPA has approved a loan for nearly half of the project costs under its “Water Infrastructure Finance & Innovation Act” or WIFIA loan program. EPA had approved the project’s environmental impact report and the project was anticipated to start last October, but a F&WS biologist slammed the brakes on that when the agency officially disagreed with a conclusion that building the plant on seven acres of designated critical habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog, was more serious than the EIR indicated.

F&WS called for a “consultation” with the EPA on this aspect of the project and the two agencies have been discussing the matter since September. If a full consultation is ordered, groundbreaking could be delayed another couple of months. But that places the bids the City accepted for the plant in potential jeopardy.

City Manager Scott Collins said that the City is “still in discussions with EPA and USF&WS about the timing of completion of the review.”

Meanwhile, under the City’s Coastal Commission-issued permit, it must wait to get “concurrence” with federal agencies before the permit goes into effect and the project can move forward.

But, Black & Veatch/Filanc’s contract to design and build the treatment plant — its so-called “guaranteed maximum price” or “not-to-exceed” price — officially ran out Oct. 31.

And while most City officials don’t seem too concerned, one councilman is expressing great concerns about the project.

Councilman Jeff Heller, who has been a vocal critic of the project since before being elected in 2018, said, “Unfortunately, and in spite of the years of hard work by well-intended elected officials, regulatory agencies, and concerned citizens, this project is in significant trouble.”

Meanwhile, a survey of underground utilities along the path of the project’s conveyance system is wrapping up. That work identifies where all underground utilities are located before the City starts tearing up streets to lay the pipes needed to move the waste flow some three miles to the new treatment plant and unusable wastewater back to be discharged into the ocean.

Also, to bring treated wastewater back into town where the plan is to inject it into the Morro Creek underground basin at a site off Atascadero Road where the City’s plans are to recycle it back into drinking water.

A large lift station is being planned for a vacant lot on Main Street next door to the Lemos Feed and Pet Supply store. That pump station is expected to be some 30-feet below the surface.