The Sewer Authority Mid-coastside lawsuit now involves over $6 million in disputed capital costs for the Intertie Pipeline System, plus an estimated $680,000 of Half Moon Bay legal fees, likely headed toward $3 million for all three agencies if it goes to trial, which is where it appears to be headed.
There are two key facts about this lawsuit many do not understand. First, the SAM system was designed to join together three separate areas, each of which previously had its own sewer treatment plant and collection systems. Second, Montara wanted no part of it, an opinion perhaps best explained by Robert Magnasco in a May 17, 1976, meeting of the old Montara Sanitary District. To wit: "Mr. Robert Magnasco was appalled that a sewer plant functioning at 50 percent capacity would be abandoned and the raw sewage would be pumped nine miles for treatment."
Magnasco knew something, even before the lawsuit, and the creation of an IPS, which would suffer over 100 sewer spills in recent history. It would be expensive to move that sewage, and risky. And that IPS is what the city doesn’t want to help fund.
But here we are, with an IPS that costs money to replenish as the assets inevitably age, and which was part of a devil's bargain the county forced on Montara. In fact, Half Moon Bay hasn't wanted to pay its share since the early 2000s. Half Moon Bay delayed SAM maintenance on the IPS beginning then, back when the Beachwood lawsuit was threatening to be a $40 million hit for the city. It appears the city was strongly motivated to cut costs, and not paying for SAM's IPS maintenance was a convenient target, compared say, to a new library.
The IPS was always part of the integrated sewer system designed back in the ‘70s, and it benefits Half Moon Bay in four ways:
1. It allowed the city to afford replacing a failing sewer plant at less cost than doing it themselves.
2. The IPS also serves all parts of the city north of the SAM plant, including the "cherry stem" up to the Pillar Point Harbor. Thus parts of the city are served by Granada Community Service District sewers and the city is suing its own residents there.
3. It gives Half Moon Bay protection against severe wet weather events, when SAM plant operators can turn off the flow from the north and hold the sewage in wet weather storage tanks upstream. Half Moon Bay can use 100 percent of the plant's capacity, which has happened at least twice in recent years.
4. The tanks in the IPS allow SAM staff to perform maintenance on the plant by shutting it down. As the city has no sewer storage, tanks in the IPS can be used to hold sewage back at the pump stations until work is done. This has occurred more than once when the Force Main had to be fixed.
In July 2017, the city filed a lawsuit against MWSD, GCSD, and SAM claiming continuing investments in the IPS should not be paid by HMB. HMB now approves expenditures for certain IPS-related projects only under protest, subject to repayment pending the outcome of the lawsuit. If the city wins this unjustified lawsuit, it will pay none of those costs. Which means that MWSD and GCSD will pay an extra $3 million above their combined 50 percent share of SAM ownership.
Collateral damage from this lawsuit is the issue of recycled water, which is something Half Moon Bay could really use with the Bay Delta Plan threatening a two-thirds cutback in water during drought years. That partially designed recycling project was put on hold by the lawsuit, in spite of the need being ratified as far back as a 2009 Coastal Commission staff report.
I'm aware that truth and justice do not always prevail, so I'm not making bets on the outcome of this lawsuit. Montara lost a perfectly good sewer plant it hadn't even finished paying for; hundreds of sewer spills related to the IPS have occurred; the city got a more modern and compliant sewer plant, but has to pay for a share of an IPS; recycled water efforts have been sidetracked; all residents are paying legal fees over this lawsuit; and there's a $6 million (and growing) sword hanging over all our heads. All because the county insisted on this jury-rigged sewer system when it could have just let Montara move its outfall and let Half Moon Bay and Granada pay for their own new sewer systems.
Maybe the county should be the one paying for this mess, because it seems like San Mateo County caused it.
Gregg Dieguez lives in Montara and is a member of the Midcoast Community Council.