California has long been a leader in tackling climate change. But in June, voters in the San Francisco Bay area will have the chance to take their state’s commitment to addressing the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation a step further.
Measure AA, which will be on the June 7 ballot in nine counties in the Bay Area, seeks to improve the health of the San Francisco Bay by instituting a tax on Bay Area citizens. The tax, which would amount to a property tax of $12 a year, or $1 a month, would fund projects to remove pollution and toxins from the bay and improve habitat along the bay’s shore. That in and of itself is important: the San Francisco Bay is plagued by mercury, pharmaceuticals, runoff from cars and trucks, and trash — a 2012 study found that the bay takes in 1.36 million gallons of trash every year.
This is an extremely forward-thinking solution to climate adaptation
But the tax, which is expected to raise $500 million in the next 20 years, would also tackle a more dire threat to San Francisco residents: sea level rise. The money would go towards projects that would “provide nature-based flood protection through wetland and habitat restoration along the Bay’s edge and at creek outlets that flow to the Bay,” and “build and/or improve flood protection levees that are a necessary part of wetland restoration activities.”
“This is an extremely forward-thinking solution to climate adaptation,” said Garrison Frost, spokesman for Audubon California, one of several environmental organizations supporting the measure. The state of California has done a lot to address climate change, he said, but so far its efforts to adapt to climate change haven’t quite caught up to its efforts to mitigate it. That’s where initiatives like this come in. “There are a lot of things happening in state capital right now on adaptation … [the state] is incredibly proactive, but frankly, budgets are tight,” he said.
And adapting to climate change — and the sea level rise that accompanies it — is essential for a coastal state like California. According to the National Research Council, sea levels off the coast of much of California are projected to rise by about three feet over the next hundred years. That’s higher than the average projected sea level rise for the rest of the world, and will leave the coast more vulnerable to storm surges and waves. That includes San Francisco Bay: according to the NRC report, which was published in 2012, the Bay Area could see an increase of “extreme water heights” from nine hours per decade now to hundreds of hours per decade by 2050, and thousands of hours per decade by 2100.
The wetland component of the measure is key, Frost said. Before humans really started developing San Francisco Bay area, the bay had 200,000 acres of wetlands. Now, it has about 40,000 acres. These wetlands, though degraded from their original state, provide a key habitat for hundreds of species of migrating birds — if they were built back up, they’d be an even better source of habitat for these birds, Garrison said. And the wetlands also provide a natural buffer against storm surges and sea level rise. A 2007 report set a goal of 100,000 acres of wetlands in the bay — a number that this measure would make a lot of progress on, Frost said.
“There are probably as many as 30,000 acres of wetlands that have been purchased, acquired, and protected, but no one has money to go in and restore them,” Frost said. “There are projects ready to go,” and the funding brought in with this tax would target those projects, he said. It would also allow the region to leverage more money from state and federal resources. “This will be a catalyst for fantastic improvements in the bay,” Frost said. The initiative has gotten criticism because it taxes everyone equally — large corporations like Google and individual homeowners will both pay the $12 a year — instead of taxing based off of property value. But it’s also been endorsed by several groups and lawmakers too, including the Sierra Club, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Frost is hopeful about the measure’s future — the polling his organization has seen has been positive, though groups like his have more work to do to get the word out about the vote by June 7, he said. But he admits this type of tax won’t work everywhere.
“I think in the San Francisco Bay, this strategy turned out to be the most feasible,” he said. The Bay Area is unique: the people who live there have a joint identity that doesn’t exist in multi-county blocks in many other areas of the country. But he does think that the measure will inspire other regions to act on their own to prepare for climate change and its impacts — and to clean up their local environments.
“I think what you’re going to see in other regions and other areas is that they will look to San Francisco and realize that they too can think creatively on ways to finance climate adaptation,” he said. “What people are going to draw from the San Francisco example is that there’s no reason to wait around.”