UPDATE: On Tuesday, June 7, Measure AA was approved, receiving more than 69 percent of the vote, exceeding the two-thirds majority required for tax proposals. The $12/year parcel tax will first be assessed on Bay Area property owners on July 1, 2017.
The San Francisco Bay could see huge advances in ecological restoration if voters approve a first-of-its-kind ballot measure on Tuesday, June 7. Residents of the Bay Area’s nine counties will be asked to pass a $12-per-year parcel tax to raise $500 million toward wetlands restoration and other Bay shoreline improvements over the next 20 years in what would be a historic influx in funding for the Bay.
Perhaps most surprising is the widespread support for Measure AA among business, local government, and environmental groups—each of whom see the benefits of a healthy Bay in the face of the combined pressures of sea level rise, climate change, and urbanization.
“We’ve been working to get to this point for more than a decade,” says David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, the nonprofit environmental group that is spearheading the funding initiative. “I think because we’ve taken the time to build a broad coalition of supporters, there is an understanding of the benefits this measure will bring and the wisdom of doing it this way.”
Lewis calls Measure AA a “game changer” in long-term efforts to restore about 35,000 acres of publicly owned tidal and subtidal habitat along the Bay. Funding currently comes from a hodgepodge of state and federal sources that are inconsistent and amount to only a few million dollars a year, Lewis says. This measure would directly guarantee $25 million a year and also facilitate access to additional state and federal funding through matching grants.
In 2008, environmental groups convinced the California legislature to create the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority for the express purpose of establishing a special district that had the power to institute a tax and dispense the monies for restoration work. Since then, the Restoration Authority has been studying different tax options and evaluating which could win popular support. The $12-per-year parcel tax on all property owners in the nine-county Bay Area will require, as all tax measures do, the approval of two-thirds of the voters.
Little direct opposition to the measure has surfaced, but supporters acknowledge that 67 percent of the vote is a high bar to jump over. Among the institutional supporters is the Bay Area Council, a business group that represents 300 of the largest employers in the Bay Area. Last spring, the council released a report showing that the cost of an extreme storm along the San Francisco Bay would include at least $10.4 billion in damages to buildings and infrastructure and closures in air and road transportation. “Which puts it on par with the Loma Prieta earthquake,” says Bay Area Council policy director Adrian Covert. “We’ve done a lot to prepare for an earthquake but not for flooding.”
Bay Area businesses are concerned that this region could someday see a storm equivalent to Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, with the impact exacerbated by rising sea level. Healthier and more expansive wetlands along the Bay could alleviate the impacts of storm surges. An acre of wetland can, like a sponge, hold hundreds of thousands of gallons of water that would otherwise threaten shoreline communities.
“Wetlands are a good natural buffer to extreme storms and sea level rise, and as long as we restore sooner rather than later we will have that buffer in place,” says Beth Huning, the coordinator for the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, an advisory group for the Restoration Authority.
If Bay Area voters pass the ballot measure, they could expect to see progress on a list of nearly 100 projects from Sonoma in the north, east into Suisun Bay, and south to Alviso. In addition to wetlands restoration, the money could be used to fund clean water projects and pollution prevention programs, as well as improve public access to the Bay shore. Huning says among the first “ready-to-go” projects is the expansion of the South Bay salt ponds project, already the largest wetland restoration on the West Coast, into new areas. And in the North Bay, work could start on the Bel Marin Keys wetlands in Novato using dredged sediment to raise the elevation of the shoreline and construct a levee to stem flooding.
Sea levels are expected to rise by as much as five feet in California by the end of the century, erasing nearly all of the Bay’s tidal wetlands if nothing is done soon to make them more resilient. Restoration managers want to develop a suite of transition habitats from subtidal areas to upland slopes that would allow wetlands to migrate inland. (“Oro Loma: Can Wastewater Save the Bay from Sea Level Rise?” outlines one such project.)
“You’re not going to put [the Bay] back to the way it was historically,” Huning says. “But you’re going to see some designs that mimic natural systems even if they don’t replicate them.”
And that calls for some new ways of planning wetlands—and enough funding to implement them.