By Jake Assael
On June 7, voters in the nine-county Bay Area passed Measure AA, a $12-per-parcel tax that will restore wetlands in order to stave off the worst effects of sea-level rise. The parcel tax, which will take effect in 2017, and expire in 2037, will generate $500 million ($25 million annually) and restore at least 30,000 acres of wetlands.
Wetlands, which provide a host of ecosystem services, including flood prevention, have been greatly depleted in the Bay Area. Where 200,000 acres of tidal marshes and wetlands existed 150 years ago, only 44,000 acres exist today. This has opened the door to increased flooding and exacerbated coastal erosion, threatening the over 200 square miles of vulnerable low-lying lands in the region, worth more than $50 billion.
San Francisco has already felt the clear and present danger of sea-level rise, closing highway ramps due to inexplicably high tides, and unveiling a new category of tide called “king tides.” Sea-level predictions only continue to dim the region’s future. If sea levels were to rise 36 inches, a midrange increase through 2100, the San Francisco Ferry Building could be flooded twice over during high tide. Even if sea-levels only increase 16 inches, that would be enough to flood toll booths on the Bay Bridge during storms. A 2013 U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and California Department of Water Resources report estimated that 360,000 people in the San Francisco Bay are exposed to flood hazards in the 100-year flood plain—1 percent chance of occurring—and 1,040,000 people in the 500-year flood plain—.2 percent chance of occurring.
Measure AA will not only help prevent these catastrophes, but will save homeowners and private businesses money while doing so. The average premium for national flood insurance is around $700 ($850 in California), with high risk zones reaching into the thousands. The 30,000 acres of wetlands would provide a natural buffer preventing floods and decreasing premiums. It would also reduce the severity of storm surges, which have the potential to cause over $10,000 in damage with just one inch of flooding, according to FloodSmart.gov.
Businesses also have the opportunity to take flood protection and prevention into their own hands. A competitive grant is provided for businesses that own, are built on or are developing land at the waters’ edge. Revenue from the parcel tax will be funneled into a grant system controlled by the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, which will allow businesses to apply for money to adapt to rising sea-levels. Companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and LinkedIn have built headquarters on land that is at or close to zero elevation and was reclaimed from the bay in recent decades.
Private property is not the only infrastructure at risk. The Bay Area currently has 22 wastewater treatment plants representing 350 MGD of treatment capacity, as well as 11 power plants representing 1,700 MW (18 percent of installed electricity generation capacity in the region) that could be at risk under predictions of future flooding. Repairing utility infrastructure could be costly. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the estimated cost of repairing New York’s wastewater treatment plants was nearly $2 billion. Its neighbor, New Jersey, had planned to allocate upwards of $1 billion for facilities repair and another $1.7 billion for building resilience into the system.
Despite the environmental and financial benefits Measure AA provides, it has still been hit by a wave of criticism, most harshly in that it taxes everyone equally. This means that large corporations such as Google and individual homeowners will be paying the same amount. Albeit the potentially questionable tax scheme, the advantages are apparent. Measure AA will double the amount of wetlands in the Bay Area, drastically reducing the risk of flooding and erosion along the coasts. It will also provide important habitats for wildlife, create a carbon sink – thereby reducing emissions – and drastically improve the water quality of the bay, removing the harmful toxins that pollute it.
As the spending bills that would help fight coastal flooding sputter, coastal areas should look elsewhere for funds. San Francisco has taken the initiative and passed an innovative tax that will ease the burden of sea level rise, allow opportunities for grants, and take the areas destiny into its own hands. Let Measure AA set the precedent for present action, not future optimism.
For more information, please contact Jake Assael at Jake.Assael@warwickconsultants.net