October 31, 2016
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San Francisco Bay Area Makes History With Wetland Restoration Measure

A ballot measure passed in June holds big lessons for the San Francisco Bay Area. The effort to restore wetlands revealed residents’ motivations for protecting the bay and could inform future efforts.

By Robin Meadows, NewsDeeply.com

THE BAY AREA made history in June 2016 by passing Measure AA, a wetland restoration parcel tax and the first ballot measure to include all nine counties. Besides providing wildlife habitat and flood protection, the measure may hold lessons for future regional governance. Most of all, however, the measure’s success underscores how important the Bay is to us.

“We learned how much the region’s residents love the Bay,” said Save the Bay political director Paul Kumar, who helped run the Measure AAcampaign. “We strongly identify it as a unique feature that unites us and gives the region identity.”

The groundwork for Measure AA was laid in 2008, when the state legislature created the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority. Staffed by the State Coastal Conservancy and the San Francisco Estuary Partnership since its inception, the Restoration Authority’s initial job was to persuade local voters to fund tidal marsh restoration along the shores of the Bay. “There were 36,000 acres [14,500 hectares] under public trust for restoration, but no reliable source of funds,” Kumar explained.

But then the economy tanked nationwide, dashing the chances of winning the two-thirds super majority vote required to pass a tax measure. “It was not feasible to put forth a measure during the Great Recession,” Kumar said. “People cared about the Bay, but it wouldn’t rise to the top of what they would fund.”

So, while waiting for the economy to rebound, the Restoration Authority optimized the Bay restoration measure and honed its campaign message. “A two-thirds vote is an incredibly high bar to clear – you need very broad consensus,” Kumar said. Opinion polls showed that people preferred a small annual parcel tax to a large general obligation bond. Polling also revealed the reasons for restoring the Bay that resonated with voters: People cared most about clean water, wildlife habitat and access to the beauty of the Bay.

Interestingly, protection against floods – which are expected to worsen with the rising seas and stronger storm surges of climate change – was not a compelling message. “The chain of reasoning had too many steps,” Kumar said. Likewise, while the accountability built into the measure was key to garnering support from elected officials and public watchdogs, factors such as a citizens’ oversight committee and region-wide representation were not major inducements to voters.

The Restoration Authority placed Measure AA on the June ballot because it was less crowded than the November ballot. “It didn’t have as much competition for attention because the election cycle wasn’t as noisy,” Kumar said. In addition, the June ballot featured the presidential primaries, and the Republican primary was relatively uncontested while the Democratic primary was hotly contested. This helped the measure by boosting the turnout of Democratic voters, who are often more likely to support tax measures than their Republican counterparts.

Measure AA passed with more than 70 percent of the vote throughout the Bay Area. While the measure didn’t achieve a super majority in every county, it did win a majority of votes in each of the nine counties, with support ranging from a high of 78 percent in San Francisco County to a low of 54 percent in Solano County. “It’s an almost indescribable thrill to have two-thirds of the Bay Area say, ‘Let’s tax ourselves for the Bay,’” said Coastal Conservancy executive officer Sam Schuchat. “When has the region ever had one voice on any issue?”

Could Measure AA’s success pave the way for Bay Area-wide solutions to other regional issues like transportation and affordable housing? Kumar thinks so. “There are lessons for future collaborative work across the region on other pressing problems,” he said. “Some of the best and brightest news out of this is that, for example, business and conservation groups found common ground via substantial fact-based discussion.”

The measure’s $12 annual parcel tax will raise $25 million a year for 20 years. County tax assessors will start collecting funds in fall 2017, and the Restoration Authority expects to allocate the first round of funds to projects in early 2018. There is plenty to do in the interim. Tasks include revamping the advisory committee to ensure geographic and demographic representation, and establishing the citizens’ oversight committee. “They’re both for accountability – one for before decisions are made, and the other for after to see how they worked out,” Schuchat said. “Did they fund the right projects? Did they spend the money as promised and as efficiently as possible?”

The $500 million from Measure AA won’t fund all the Bay’s restoration needs. Experts say it’ll take 100,000 acres [40,000 hectares] of tidal marsh for a healthy estuary, and getting us the rest of the way there will cost an estimated $1.5 to $2 billion. A Restoration Authority map of likely projects shows nearly 50 wetland areas that need help: They dot the shoreline all around the Bay, from the once vast marshes in the South and North bays to the Suisun Bay and neighboring parts of the Delta.

“We’re excited to embark on this,” said San Francisco Estuary partnership director Caitlyn Sweeney. “It’s a great boon to the region.”

This story first appeared in the Bay Area MonitorRobin Meadows covers water for the Bay Area Monitor.

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