This Central Pacific Coast town is divided by a sewer that does not exist -- and perhaps never will.
At a groundbreaking event for the sewer in July, two black-clad members of the board overseeing the troubled project tossed down their shovels and turned their backs in protest. Sewer supporters kept digging, even flipping some dirt on the downed shovels as hecklers booed.
Things have not warmed up since. Late last month, the majority of the oversight board was thrown out in a recall election spearheaded by sewer opponents who say the project would be too expensive, obtrusive and smelly.
Rarely has a not-in-my-backyard dispute been as colorful as the one in this quiet town of 15,000 midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The town finds itself in the stink because it never modernized its plumbing as it grew from a post-World War II retreat to a bedroom community of San Luis Obispo.
Proponents of the $135 million project, which would include a wastewater treatment plant and a network of new pipes, say it is needed to replace septic tanks that seep pollution into the water supply and the tranquil Morro Bay estuary, home to more than a dozen threatened or endangered species.
Opponents object to the site of the treatment plant because it is near homes, a library, a community center and the estuary. Critics want a cheaper solution and say sewer bills of as much as $200 a month -- in addition to installation costs of $1,000 to $4,000 per home -- could price out less affluent residents.
"It would definitely kill the diversity," said Betty Field-Haley, 67, who displays her paintings of a longtailed sewer dragon during public meetings on the project.
On Sept. 27, voters kicked three sewer supporters off the board of the Los Osos Community Services District, which was founded in 1998 to deal with the problem. The three were replaced with new members who join the two shovel-tossing board members in pledging to halt the project in favor of something new.
What that would be has yet to be precisely determined -- so no end is in sight for the town's great plumbing debate.
"There are people who for years got together and had dinner parties who don't talk to each other anymore," said Michael Drake, who was hired as the community services district spokesman soon after the groundbreaking debacle. "All over how to handle our wastewater problem."
Drake said opponents of the project have cursed him on the phone and threatened him at the grocery store. He said the debate reached a low point when a dead deer was posed against the fence surrounding the sewer plant site to make it look as if the project somehow killed it. Drake accused project opponents of rigging the scene.
Gail McPherson, who led the successful recall campaign, said the deer was trying to get into habitat fenced off by the project when it was hit by a car. She said the impact threw the deer's body against the fence and a project opponent moved the body to take a picture of it.
The region's water quality control board ordered Los Osos to replace septic systems two decades ago, citing groundwater and ocean pollution. Since then, the sewer's projected costs have more than tripled as townspeople debated the system.
Lisa Schicker, one of the board members who took part in the groundbreaking protest, said opponents of the wastewater treatment plan recognize the need to replace the septic tanks but want to do it with a project outside of town. She supports a system of open-air ponds that would use earth to contain the sewage, saving money on concrete and steel.
Stopping the original project now could result in fines of as much as $10,000 a day from the regional water board, Drake said. The district has already received nearly $13 million of a $135 million state loan for the project and spent an additional $20 million on design, studies and land, he said.
But Drake will not be around to deal with that problem. At a meeting last Saturday night, the new board fired him and ordered construction suspended.
Wastewater treatment plant critic Betty Field-Haley says the cost "would definitely kill the diversity" in their community of Los Osos, Calif.