Restoring San Francisco Bay’s wetlands one native plant at a time

The San Francisco Bay’s wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate due to encroaching development, leaving the local ecosystem at risk. Moreover, the wetlands can store as much carbon as a tropical rainforest, an invaluable asset in the effort to slow global warming. Sonia Aronson of the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs takes a look at a new and contentious proposed tax to save the bay.

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    Next Tuesday, San Francisco residents will vote on a ballot measure regarding funding to preserve and restore Bay Area wetlands.

    Many in the tech and environmental communities, including youth volunteers, have lined up to support the bill. However, not all voters believe that the proposed tax is the solution.

    This story comes from special correspondent Sonia Aronson at Media Enterprise Alliance in Oakland, part of our network of Student Reporting Labs.

  • WOMAN:

    Welcome to the Oakland shoreline. This is Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Park.


    These local high school students have volunteered their Saturday to clean up the San Francisco Bay.

    CHRIS LA, Volunteer, Save the Bay: We are helping restore and replant and reinstall native plants into this area of the wetlands.


    They are here with Save the Bay, a local organization that mobilizes the community to restore the thousands of acres of wetlands surrounding the bay.

    They also educate volunteers and student groups like this one about the crucial role that wetlands play in sustaining the bay.

    Chris La is a sophomore at Oakland High School.


    We should be connected to our environment, because that's what we should be worried about first. Without the world, without nature, we wouldn't be here. And we're slowly doing a better job at sustaining ourselves, but, so far, we kind of screwed up over the last 200 years.


    In that time, the wetlands that surround the bay have been disappearing at an alarming rate, which could endanger not just the local ecosystem, but the worldwide effort to address global warming and sea level rise.

    PATTY OIKAWA, University of California, Berkeley: So, originally, this was all wetlands. About 150 years ago, people came in and drained those wetlands and started growing crops like corn and alfalfa.


    Patty Oikawa, a postdoctoral researcher at U.C. Berkeley, is studying the unique ability of wetlands to store carbon, a trait that can offset the effects of climate change.


    It's definitely carbon-rich.


    Oikawa and her team are here in the San Joaquin River Delta east of San Francisco measuring levels of carbon beneath the surface of this wetland.

    In the process, they are getting a sense of just how effective this ecosystem can be.


    What we can now say is that we're taking up approximately 400 or 500 grams of carbon per square meter per year. And that's a really high amount of carbon storage, equivalent to like a tropical rain forest even. It's extremely productive.


    Oikawa's research shows how the wetlands play a crucial role in sustaining the health of coastal areas, but due to continued development, these wetlands are in greater danger than ever.


    These systems tend to be near rivers or near the coast, which are areas that are highly impacted by people in California, highly developed areas, which is why we have lost 90 percent of them.


    Today, San Francisco Bay is only one-third its original size and only a fraction of the original wetlands remain.

    But this degradation has not gone unnoticed. A new ballot initiative being pushed by local environmental and business groups may help. This June, voters in nine Bay Area counties will vote on Measure AA, a proposed parcel tax to raise funds for wetlands restoration and other work to protect the bay.

    Save the Bay is one of the organizations pushing this idea. David Lewis is Save the Bay's executive director:

    DAVID LEWIS, Executive Director, Save the Bay: We have more than 30,000 acres that are waiting to be restored to tidal marsh. And the missing ingredient is funding. With the funds generated from this parcel tax, from Measure AA, we will be able to accelerate wetland restoration and get all these benefits in the next 10 or 20 years.


    Measure AA proposes a $12-per-year property tax on each parcel of land in the nine counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay.

    It would raise $500 million for bay restoration over the next 20 years. The measure requires a two-thirds majority to pass, a high bar for a new tax, but a broad coalition of support has gathered behind the measure, including some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley.

    The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a trade organization that represents more than 390 businesses, including Apple and Google, is advocating for passage of the parcel tax. But some groups believe that the parcel tax doesn't represent the diverse interests of the Bay Area.

    Wendy Lack is a research assistant for the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.

  • WENDY LACK, Contra Costa Taxpayers Association:

    We don't believe it's good value for taxpayers. There's a lack of oversight regarding how the funds would be spent. In fact, we don't know how it will be spent. And it expands regional government. We believe that government is best when it's local, accessible, directly elected, and available to people.


    Critics also point out that the $12 parcel tax would make a small homeowner pay the same amount as the owner of a San Francisco high-rise, or a Silicon Valley corporate office.

    But local government officials, such as Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, say voters should support Measure AA for the benefit of future generations.

  • MAYOR LIBBY SCHAAF, Oakland, California:

    We have got to pay attention to our wetlands and how it sustains an ecosystem that is critical not just for environmental health, but for our health, and particularly for the future generations that deserve to inherit a Bay Area that is a healthy Bay Area.


    Back at the Save the Bay work day, youth are already working to create a healthier bay, one native plant at a time.


    I know that a lot of people are passionate, especially young people. We can't reverse what we have done, but what can slow it down, and maybe find a solution.


    I'm Sonia Aronson for the "PBS NewsHour" Student Reporting Labs in Oakland, California.