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Press release
Sacramento Bee, August 3, 2010

Suit to challenge rules against vegetation on California levees
By Matt Weiser

An environmental group says it plans to mount a legal challenge to a federal policy that could eliminate trees from hundreds of miles of Central Valley levees.

The Center for Biological Diversity on Monday notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it intends to file a lawsuit in federal court against the policy.

The group alleges the corps failed to consult with federal wildlife agencies, as required by the Endangered Species Act, before imposing the policy. It also alleges the policy inappropriately shifts the consultation job to local agencies.

"There's potentially some very large impacts on habitat for endangered species," said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the environmental group. It filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue. If the corps does not correct the alleged deficiencies in that time, a lawsuit may follow.

Corps spokesman Pete Pierce declined to comment directly on the legal allegations. But he said, via e-mail, that Miller's group made some inaccurate assumptions.

For one, he said, the policy is not yet final. Nor has the corps decided whether an environmental impact study will be required.

The corps certifies the flood safety of major levee systems. Its maintenance policy, in place for years, allows only short grass on levees. The belief is that tree roots weaken levees, and that dense vegetation hinders levee inspection.

Failure to comply would mean local levee maintenance agencies are ineligible for federal assistance after a flood.

Until recently, however, the policy has not been applied uniformly nationwide. California, for example, has long operated under rules that allow trees. The corps itself has planted thousands of trees on levees here.

But under pressure after Hurricane Katrina, the corps announced its national maintenance policy would apply everywhere. Since then, California officials have pressed for an exemption.

The Central Valley is particularly vulnerable: About 1,600 miles of levees hold millions of mature trees.

Because of the way the levees were built in the early 1900s, those trees provide virtually the only riparian habitat remaining in the valley. The trees shade shallow-water habitat for salmon and steelhead, and provide shelter for sensitive bird species.

"There's little proof that trees threaten levees in California," Miller said. "In fact, research shows trees can strengthen levees, and a scientific review by the corps last year determined some vegetation may help stabilize them."

The corps recently granted its first formal variance from the policy for Sacramento's Natomas basin. It allows trees to remain on about 42 miles of levees.

But this variance may not set a precedent for others, because it hinges on an expensive levee design that rural areas may not be able to afford.

The area's second variance request will come this fall from the corps itself. The agency's Sacramento District will seek a variance to restore habitat on levees it repaired after storms in 2006. This will include planting willow trees.

"We genuinely think this is the right way to go as far as taking care of the environment," said district spokeswoman DeDe Cordell. "But we have to put public safety first."

A broader exemption for the Central Valley as a whole is in the works. The region was given until 2012 to prepare a policy to both satisfy the corps and preserve trees. But it will still be subject to a corps veto, and it won't cover other areas of the state.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton