Measure AA Asks Bay Area Residents to Help Protect Against Sea Level Rise

A tidal marsh on the Richmond shoreline. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

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Sea levels are expected to rise significantly by mid-century, threatening airports and major highways around San Francisco Bay.

A first-of-its-kind measure on the June ballot is designed to jump-start the Bay Area’s preparation for that.

Measure AA would create a new property tax in the nine Bay Area counties to restore tidal marshes and help secure flood protection.

According to one study, $62 billion of property around San Francisco Bay is at risk.

“There’s been parts of 101 and other roads that have been underwater in the recent past,” says Mike Mielke of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, “and that’s only a small taste of what’s to come.”

The tax would be the same for low-income families who have a small home and for tech companies with a large campus located right on the shoreline, like Google and Facebook. And that’s causing some controversy.

What Measure AA Would Do

Measure AA would implement a $12-a-year parcel tax, raising about half a billion dollars over 20 years. The money would go toward building up the bay’s defense against sea level rise by restoring marshes.

“The marshes are a great buffer because the plants in the wetlands slow down the wave action and reduce the flooding,” says David Lewis, executive director of the non-profit Save the Bay.

Low-lying plants in tidal marshes, such as those on the Richmond shoreline, act like sponges, Lewis says, absorbing surges from big waves and floods.

Around 80 percent of the bay’s marshes have been lost since the Gold Rush, many paved over for development.

“They were filled in to create dumps for the cities here in the East Bay and where the population put its garbage for decades,” says Lewis.

Around 30,000 acres of restoration projects around the bay are in need of funding. Lewis says Measure AA could help implement about a third of them and draw down federal grants that are awarded only when local funds are being spent as well.

Sites at Risk From Sea Level Rise

Scientists say the sea level could rise up to 55 inches by 2100; new estimates coming out soon could put that number higher.

SOURCE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Teodros Hailye/KQED Science)

Why It’s Controversial

Supporters must convince voters who live nowhere near the shoreline that restoration has benefits for them too.

“This is a very tiny tax shared by a lot of people that generates a huge amount of benefit for San Francisco Bay for people and wildlife,” says Lewis.

“It’s only a latte a month,” says Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “That’s the phrase that the tax-and-spend crowd really likes to use. Bet you dollars to donuts that we’re going to hear that.”

As Coupal sees it, the problem with Measure AA is that everyone would pay the same no matter the size of their property or how much they would benefit.

“Whether it is a struggling farmworker family in a very modest bungalow in Gilroy or the Apple campus there in Silicon Valley,” he says. “So obviously there are equity issues with respect to this particular proposal.”

Waterfront views have long been a draw for many companies around the Bay Area, like Facebook. Its Menlo Park campus is surrounded by water on two sides.

“You get the beautiful view of the bay,” says Facebook’s public policy manager Juan Salazar, standing on the nine-acre green roof on top of the company’s newest building. “On a good day, you can actually see Oakland from here.”

Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park sits right on the bay waterfront.
Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park sit right on the bay waterfront. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

The scenic location is also becoming a liability for Facebook and half a dozen other tech giants on the shore. Scientists say sea level could rise more than a foot by mid-century and up to five feet by the end of the century, depending on how climate change plays out.

Salazar says Facebook is already planning for that. “The building that you’re sitting in right now, we were built above a floodplain,” he says.

But Salazar says there’s more to be done both to protect businesses and the roads and freeways in the area. Mike Mielke of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group agrees the measure is focused on airports, roads, and neighborhoods. He says tech companies will take care of protecting themselves.

“It’s the public infrastructure that we all share in and we all have a risk associated with if it’s flooded,” he says.

Coupal isn’t against bay restoration, but would rather see it paid for through the state’s general fund.

Why Measure AA Is a First

If the measure passes, it’ll be a first. Coastal cities like New Orleans have turned to federal grants to protect themselves. But raising money directly from the public for climate change could be a model for other coastal areas.

Measure AA will need two-thirds of all the votes cast in the nine counties around the bay to pass. Voters will decide June 7th.

Measure AA Asks Bay Area Residents to Help Protect Against Sea Level Rise 9 May,2016Lauren Sommer

  • AlbanyMom

    I just heard this piece on the radio and am so disappointed in KQED. I’m astounded that the anti-social responsibility representative from Howard Jarvis was allowed to spout his talking points without any journalistic follow up. Want to know why this parcel tax is being levied equally to all property holders? Because “anti-tax” organizations just like Howard Jarvis have file lawsuits and forced a change in California law to ensure that big businesses do not pay their fair share. Because of organizations like Howard Jarvis, it is now against the law in California for parcel taxes to have “unequal” amounts–or split roll–for homeowners and commercial businesses. In the past, property tax measures could be structured so that homeowners with small properties could be charged less than large commercial properties. But because “anti-tax” organizations exist solely to protect large businesses, the law has been changed, shifting property taxes once again onto the bills of families.

    For the Howard Jarvis rep to bemoan how unfair this is to poor struggling families is more than disingenuous and misleading. And KQED should have talked to a real tax expert–not an “anti-tax” activist–about this issue.

    • Robert S. Allen

      Are sea-level rise figures real, exaggerated, or maybe even a hoax? Even if all of the land-borne ice melted, how would that volume of water affect sea levels world-wide? (Sea-borne ice doesn’t count.)

    • Lola Themola

      Time to hear from the most important environmental organizations that support this: SF Baykeeper, Sierra Club, Save the Bay, SPUR, Open Space Council, and others.

      • sojourner_7

        They support it because others are funding it. This new, regional agency is going to turn around and sell Huge Bonds, and keep the taxpayers on the hook. OPM… “other people’s money”. For most of us, it’s not about the wetlands, it’s the sneaky underhanded way of creating new regional taxation. So forget all your la-de-dah, earth momma arguments. This is a financial matter.

      • cyril manning

        Thanks Lola. We at Save The Bay support Measure AA because it means cleaner water, more wildlife habitat, and a better quality of life for Bay Area residents…. And because restoring natural wetlands is critical to addressing climate change right here in the Bay Area. The truth is, the only opposition we’ve seen is from folks like the Howard Jarvis people who oppose all taxes, no matter what they’re about. We don’t expect to change their minds, but fortunately we know most Bay Area residents understand that $12 is a very small price to pay for enormous environmental and economic benefits.
        –Cyril Manning, Communications Director, Save The Bay

  • mzungu

    LOL…Can someone show me how much sea water this project will soak up out of that 55 inches of expected rise? Will it even lower it by 1/8th of an inch against the mighty Pacific Ocean?

    I have no problem with wild land restoration, but selling it as part of a viable defense against global warming is just laughable.

    • SteveBloom

      Wetlands are a big help with wave action and storm surge, and so a *temporary* help with rising sea levels, but it remains that in the vast majority of wetland areas without much sediment flow (such that the wetlands can grow vertically) sea level rise will erase much of the benefit of this plan. A realistic plan would incorporate a substantial amount of retreat, and this one appears to do none of that.

      An example: The plan proposes extensive restored wetlands backed by shorter levees which the wetlands will enable by protecting them from storm surge and wave action. Unfortunately, when sea level rise erases those wetlands the levees behind them will cease to be protected (and protective).

      A lot more could be said about this plan, and it’s a shame (and not at at all good journalistic practice) that Lauren couldn’t find someone other than the usual suspects to interview about it.

      • mzungu

        Unfortunately, just about environmental project now have to be sold as a fight against Global Warming instead of a local thing. I think people will get so sick of it, or start to care more about some big meeting in Paris than solving local issues. 😛

        • Lola Themola

          The health of the SF Bay — the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas — is NOT a local issue. The entire State of CA depends on the health of the Bay Area which is dependent upon the Bay. It ripples out from there.

          • mzungu

            Well, then this tax then should be applied State wide instead of just a local tax.

    • Lola Themola

      It’s a defense against the effects of global warming.

      • mzungu

        My point is, it doesn’t. Tell me how many of that 55 inches sea rise this Measure will lower for the area affected….

  • sojourner_7

    Don’t be fooled, this is a Trojan Horse. Vote No, as this is about regional government and regional taxation. Our wetlands can be addressed via other methods.

    • Sandra Davenport

      I agree totally. This is creating another huge bureaucracy that will require continual funding. We want to protect our wetlands/bay, but this is not the answer.

      • Lola Themola

        There will be little extra bureaucracy — it’s a parcel tax.

    • Lola Themola

      Which other methods are those?

      • sojourner_7

        US Army Corps of Engineers, for starters, as they are tasked with this. If you want to approach specific counties about parcel taxes, individually, that’s OK. Measure AA states that the measure can be amended by a simple board vote. Which means they can change everything about the measure, after the money comes in. Unbelievable. It’s So Wrong. Back to the drawing board…

  • Simone15

    I will gladly pay more when all rich hypocrites like al gore & do caprio give up their Staggering carbon footprints – till then – I’m voting no

    • Lola Themola

      Silly reasoning.

  • Student

    Lauren? Why only one guest, and no evidence readily available for this being the most effective way to protect coastal infrastructure?

  • Student

    The website for Measure AA says “This measure is critical to restoring wetlands and protecting wildlife habitat for future generations”.
    For that purpose, it may be the right thing to vote for. But Lauren, did anyone say why it was pitched (on KQED) instead as a climate solution?

    • Lola Themola

      It IS a climate solution. Sea level rise will be the most palpable way we experience the ill effects here in the Bay Area.

    • Lola Themola

      It’s because of the threat to wetlands, wildlife habitat and your house that climate change, and it’s most palpable effect: sea level rise, poses.

  • sojourner_7

    “The environmental issue is a smokescreen for the major play here: empowering a new form of government, regional, that destroys representative government. What does this mean for you? The new ‘region’, the Bay Area, becomes the political and financial gorilla that crushes your ability as a voter to control your life. Instead of working with local, county, and state representatives you’ll be subjected to the power of the OneBayArea: 9 counties / 101 cities where you have no meaningful representation. This is what happened with PlanBayArea.”

  • caitlin

    Love the interactive map to visualize the data. Thanks for bringing us the best in reporting


Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs – all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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