The California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access for All program began as a state senate bill in 2016 and is finally making its way to June primary ballots as a $4 billion bond measure that will determine funding for California’s local and state parks.
Senate Bill 5 was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown on October 15, 2017 after a multi-year effort led by state legislators like Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and park agencies including the East Bay Regional Park District. The measure, written by de León, (D-Los Angeles), asks voters to approve the financing of $4 billion in general obligation bonds for the program.
More than half of the proposed funds—$2.83 billion—would benefit California’s parks, specifically by funding flood protection and restoration projects. “If the measure is passed by voters, we would be interested in securing funding to make repairs and upgrades at those parks,” said Dave Mason, the East Bay Regional Park District’s public information supervisor.
The park district is the largest in the nation, managing 73 regional parks and 120,000 acres of open space in both Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Three of those parks are state parks—Crown Memorial State Beach, Del Valle Regional Park and McLaughlin Eastshore State Park—all of which face issues relating to climate change and weak infrastructure.
McLaughlin Eastshore State Park spans almost nine miles along the San Francisco Bay shoreline, running through East Bay cities from Richmond to Oakland. The park is prone to flooding and has no funding from the state currently in place to address future flooding, which the threat of rising sea levels is expected to worsen.
“Many of our shoreline parks do have storm-related events related to tides,” said Mason. “We do know that with climate change and expected sea level rise, those challenges will only continue.”
Mason said the park district is “actively working to plan for the climate change” and he is confident that funding from the bond measure could help the district with upgrades necessary for addressing the rising sea level.
Scott Possin, a park supervisor for the district, said that select areas of the park have previously experienced mild flooding. Possin attributed this to the lack of a proper grading plan.
Bond supporters say the $4 billion is necessary for installing the infrastructure needed to maintain parks and make them accessible to Californians. In a press release from October, de León stated that “clean and reliable water resources, including secure flood control systems, and access to parks and recreational space, are vital to our economy and wellbeing as a state.”
But as general obligation bonds are simply pledges to use a state’s available resources, they often create public debt. Critics such as David Wolfe, legislative director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, cite the state’s already ailing economy and worsening public debt as primary reasons why the measure should not be approved.
Wolfe believes that local issues should be handled by local community members—not on a statewide ballot. “They can do things like pass benefit assessments on behalf of property owners in the area or do a two-thirds vote to pass special tax,” he said.
He added that hiking up admission costs to state parks may also be another way to fund the cost of necessary infrastructure, but added that it would be an insufficient way to fund routine upgrades and solve long-term issues.
According to the online political encyclopedia Ballotpedia, as of December, the state is already $73.33 billion in debt from general obligation bonds.
But support for the measure still outweighs opposition. While there are no committees registered to oppose the measure, there are currently five supporting it. Support committees have raised more than $1 million so far.
Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a nonprofit conservation organization that protects parkland, is the leading donor organization and has contributed $300,000 to the support committees. Jennifer Koepcke, POST’s senior manager for institutional giving, said the organization will continue to participate in the campaign for the bond measure.
“A lot of folks would agree that one of the larger challenges with state parks right now is their backlog of maintenance needs, providing the infrastructure that protects our natural resources while facilitating recreation and enjoyment of those places,” said Koepcke.
Earlier this month, the park district’s general manager, Robert Doyle, revealed in a memo to the public that there is an estimated $25 billion backlog of infrastructure and maintenance needs. Koepcke says the bond measure is going to provide the essential funding for state agency partners and the nonprofit land conservation community to not only clear up the backlog, but also to protect natural resources and “provide the services that [Californians] enjoy and depend upon.”
Save the Redwoods League is another top donor that has contributed to the support committees. Sam Hodder, the league’s president and CEO, believes that passage of this bond will help connect people with the peace and beauty of California’s parks, which he refers to as the “crown jewels” of the state.
“We’re not just hoping that voters will go out in support of the measure, but that it will pass resoundingly,” he said. “We do see it as a really important investment for the people of California.”
According to Hodder, California has a long tradition of investing in its natural resources. The league, which is currently celebrating its 100–year anniversary, has been involved since the beginning. During the 1920s, the organization helped pass one of the earliest conservation bond measures in state history that established the California state park system.
Since 1993, there have been a total of 39 bond issues on California state ballots, of which 31 have been approved by voters. Hodder mentioned, however, that it has been many years since there has been a bond passed specifically to conserve the state’s natural resources.
“It really is serendipitous that our centennial year is happening right at this moment when people of California are preparing to stand up and vote to support their natural resources and their parks,” he said.