U.S. Army Corps eases up on its stance against trees on levees

mweiser@sacbee.comMarch 24, 2014 

Trees grow on the levee where I-80 crosses the Sacramento River August 25, 2011 in Sacramento, Calif.

PAUL KITAGAKI JR. — pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided it will no longer force local levee agencies to choose between keeping trees on their levees and losing federal money for disaster assistance.

On Monday, the Army Corps announced in a new “interim” policy that it will not disqualify levees that fail to meet its maintenance criteria from receiving disaster relief funding, essentially granting a reprieve to thousands of miles of California riverside habitat. The move appears to resolve, for now, a long-running policy dispute that pitted the state of California against the powerful federal flood-control agency.

“This is really quite a substantial change,” said Tammy Conforti, levee safety program manager at the Army Corps. “That specific vegetation criteria won’t be one of the criteria that has to be met.”

Until now, the agency has said that trees threaten levee safety and must be removed. It argued that tree roots could serve as a path for seepage through a levee, or that trees could topple over in a storm and tear out chunks of a levee. Its vegetation standards allow nothing but short grass, not even small shrubs or trees.

Levees with too many trees risked being disqualified from a federal program that provides millions of dollars in levee repair grants in the event of a flood. Such a disqualification also put communities at risk of displeasing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sets flood insurance rates.

The policy pushed California levee districts to make a tough choice: Spend millions of dollars cutting down trees essential to habitat and risk violating other environmental laws, or risk going without federal flood relief money.

There has been little scientific proof that trees actually threaten levee stability. Officials at the California Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife both oppose the policy, warning it could bankrupt local levee districts and destroy the last of the state’s riverside habitat.

In the new “interim” policy, the Army Corps is now saying it will still inspect levees according to the same vegetation standards, but will no longer use that particular rating to decide whether a “local sponsor” agency is eligible for financial assistance. The vegetation rating will be informational only.

“We want to make sure we’re not incentivizing local sponsors to do something with the vegetation without taking into account endangered species,” Conforti said. “We heard the public feedback and take that very seriously that we need to better take into account local objections, local constraints.”

George Qualley, a flood management policy adviser at the California Department of Water Resources, praised the Army Corps move and said it would allow levee districts to spend their limited funds on more pressing issues, such as erosion and encroachment by buildings and utilities. He said the emphasis on vegetation was a potentially costly distraction.

“I never could figure out why they were making such a focus on it,” Qualley said. “My initial impression is it’s a step in the right direction and they are cognizant of what’s really important as far as keeping the levees safe. I would just say good for them; they’ve finally put something out there with logic to it.”

So far, only one Central Valley levee agency – serving part of the city of Marysville – has been disqualified because of vegetation problems. Army Corps officials said that agency can now request a new inspection and have its eligibility for disaster relief reinstated if no new problems are found.

Conforti said the Army Corps is working to permanently revise its maintenance standards and will likely complete that process a year from now. It will include an opportunity for public comment. She said the details are uncertain, but hinted that the new approach to inspecting vegetation will become permanent.

“We’re moving away from a strict black-and-white, ‘Here’s all your deficiencies and we’re going to tell you what to fix and when’ approach,” Conforti said. “We’re going to be focusing on more sponsor-led activities that are focused on reducing risk.”

Bob Wright, attorney at Friends of the River in Sacramento, said the change marks a victory but not the end of his battle. Wright’s group, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, sued the Army Corps in 2011 over its vegetation policy. They argue it violates the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

A federal judge in 2012 struck down a motion by the Army Corps to dismiss that case. Wright speculated this may have led to the new interim policy announced Monday.

“They’re trying to publicly avoid admitting they were wrong,” Wright said. “We can all feel pretty good that we’re going to be keeping the trees and shrubs on the levees in California’s Central Valley.”

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

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