Update: Measure AA Passes In California

San Francisco area residents have approved a ballot measure to restore wetlands, offering habitat for birds and a buffer from sea-level rise.

[Ed. Note: Measure AA passed with about 69 percent of the overall vote on June 7. “The outpouring of support for Measure AA shows the deep love that Bay Area residents have for this globally significant bird area,” said Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California, which endorsed the measure. “Now we can get to work creating a better bay that can meet the challenges of the future.”]

San Francisco Bay is one of the most important areas for birds along the Pacific Flyway. More than a million shorebirds, waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors rely on the Bay for key nesting sites, wintering grounds, or stopovers along their migration routes. The Bay’s tidal wetlands are especially rich, diverse habitat, but many have been degraded or destroyed over the years by development. On June 7, area residents will vote on a ballot measure that would raise an estimated $500 million over 20 years to restore these marshes and clean up the Bay.

The proposal, known as Measure AA, includes all nine Bay Area counties and would add a $12 annual property tax to each parcel of land. The funds would go directly to restore and enhance local wetlands, improve water quality, and clean up trash and pollution. The San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority would review and approve funding for projects, with public input and oversight written into the measure. The proposal also ensures geographic diversity by setting a minimum amount of funds directed to projects in each part of the Bay Area.

This would be the one of the first property taxes in the United States helping a region adapt to the effects of climate change, says Mike Lynes, director of public policy for Audubon California. It’s also the first ballot measure to be put to a vote in all nine counties of the Bay Area; although ballot measures are common in California on a variety of topics, their jurisdiction is usually either statewide or limited to a single county. Audubon California and all eight local Audubon chapters are supporting the measure by organizing phone banks, hosting events, and leading field trips to local wetlands. Many other conservation groups support the measure, which requires a two-thirds majority to pass.

Although the restoration authority will approve specific projects, Lynes shares a few examples of wetlands that might benefit from the measure. Crissy Field, a popular destination in San Francisco with rolling dunes and sandy beaches, is important for climate-threatened Snowy Plovers; the North Richmond Shoreline has the largest eelgrass bed in the Bay, which supports populations of herring and other fish crucial to many waterbirds’ diets; and restoring South Bay salt ponds, which were diked and dried in years past, would help shorebirds and other species.

Other birds that would benefit from healthy wetlands include breeding ducks such as mallards, gadwall, and pintail; many species of shorebirds such as American Avocets that forage in marshes at low tide; Greater and Lesser scaup and Surf Scoters that feed in open water and eelgrass beds adjacent to marshes; and locally endemic songbirds like the San Pablo Bay song sparrow and saltmarsh yellowthroat, which breed in the upland transition zones adjacent to wetlands. Some area wetlands are already protected from development by nonprofits or government agencies, but await the necessary investment to restore them to full health. Audubon California and partners recently tackled one such project to rehabilitate 400 acres of marsh along Sonoma Creek.

While wildlife is the obvious beneficiary of wetland restoration, these habitats help cushion shorelines and nearby homes, businesses, roads, and schools from the impacts of rising seas and storm surges from extreme weather. “Measure AA and tidal wetlands both have critical ties to how we prepare ecosystems and human infrastructure for climate change,” says Courtney Gutman, San Francisco restoration manager for Audubon California. “This is a way of creating protection not only for our wildlife, but for communities that depend on these marshes to absorb these impacts.” One estimate predicts that the Bay Area stands to lose $1.4 trillion in property damage if sea-level rise continues unabated. Not to mention that marshes are the best filter system for water pollution and help sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to Gutman.

Many Bay Area shorelines are reinforced with levees, sea walls, or other hard materials, but these artificial barriers can break under stress from high tides or storm surges, and they are often inhospitable to wildlife. In contrast, wetlands naturally slow the flow of water from storms, floods, and tides and absorb sediment over time. Lynes says that sea walls or levees can have a “much more catastrophic failure” than a wetland could, because a natural system can’t break in the same way.

Lynes emphasizes that wetlands need time to become established, so it’s important to invest in them as soon as possible. “Making these investments now serves a dual purpose—it makes us ready for the changes in the future from sea-level rise and major storm events, and it also builds more population resilience” for many birds. “We have species that are in trouble…that’s another reason that demonstrates we need more habitat now.”