Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 11, 2014

Contact:  Bob Wright, Friends of the River, (916) 442-3155 x 207
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Kim Delfino, Defenders of Wildlife, (916) 313-5800 x 109

Litigation Reins in Misguided Army Corps Program to Cut Trees From Levees

New Law Requires Agency to Review Vegetation Guidelines, Protect Endangered Species

SACRAMENTO— Conservation groups today successfully ended their litigation against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the Corps suspended its controversial program requiring removal of all trees and shrubs from levees and after Congress passed a new law requiring the Corps to comprehensively review its guidelines governing vegetation on levees. Friends of the River, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife dismissed their 2011 lawsuit in federal court that challenged the implementation of the Corps’ policy in California, on the basis that levee vegetation in California provides important habitat for endangered fish, birds and other wildlife, and its removal would reduce levee safety.

“We have successfully stopped the Corps program that would have required massive removal of trees and vegetation from levees in California, riparian habitat that is essential for endangered species and also provides scenic beauty and recreational enjoyment of our rivers,” said Bob Wright, senior counsel for Friends of the River. “Our litigation and the objections by state water and wildlife agencies and flood-control associations held off the levee clear-cutting program for four years, allowing Congress time to act to force the Corps to review and reconsider their vegetation policy.”

In June of this year, Congress passed, and the president signed, the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which requires the Corps to carry out a comprehensive review of its guidelines governing what to do about trees and vegetation on levees. Under the Act the Corps must consider the “levee safety benefits that can be provided by woody vegetation” and “the benefit of vegetation on levees in providing habitat for species of concern, including endangered, threatened, and candidate species.” Until the review — in consultation with federal wildlife agencies, state, regional, local and tribal governments, conservation groups and the public — is completed, the Corps cannot require the removal of existing trees and vegetation from levees as a condition for approval or funding of any project unless the specific vegetation has been demonstrated to present an “unacceptable safety risk.”

“Forcing the Corps to take a step back on its tree-removal policy is a good thing for the many endangered species in California that may rely on vegetation along levees for habitat — species like the chinook salmon, steelhead trout, green sturgeon, giant garter snake, least Bell’s vireo, riparian brush rabbit, southwestern willow flycatcher and valley elderberry longhorn beetle,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The science shows that leaving trees along levees will also benefit levee safety. The new law should allow management agencies to use scarce funds for maintenance and repairs rather than counterproductive and costly vegetation removal, which is why so many California flood control agencies opposed the Corps’ tree-cutting program.”

Said Kim Delfino with Defenders of Wildlife: “Ripping out trees and shrubs from California’s levees would not only endanger California’s fish and wildlife, but it would endanger the people behind the levees. Vegetation is important for wildlife, and also for holding soil in place during flooding. We are pleased that our lawsuit provided Congress with enough time to see the error in the Corps’ approach and require them to reconsider this misguided policy. Levee safety can be achieved without clear cutting some of the last two percent of the remaining riparian forests in the Central Valley and destroying habitat for struggling species like salmon, steelhead and willow flycatchers.”

Before adopting the anti-vegetation policy, the Corps had allowed retention and encouraged planting of trees and shrubs on Central Valley levees in cooperation with federal and state agencies because little other riverbank or riparian habitat remains for endangered species and other wildlife. After Hurricane Katrina, the Corps made major changes to its nationwide levee program, including new standards in 2009 banning vegetation within 15 feet of levees, without consideration for regional differences and the fact that many levees were designed to include streamside vegetation to enhance the habitat lost by the re-engineering of rivers and streams. The Corps took steps to cancel all exceptions to the requirement that all levees be cleared, without evaluating the impacts on endangered species or their habitats.

The major flood-control associations in the Central Valley and Bay Area, where most of the state’s levees are located (as well as a dozen flood-control agencies, many state resource agencies, and federal and state lawmakers in California), objected to or formally expressed concerns about the program. Among the concerns were that compliance and subsequent environmental mitigation would be extremely costly; diverting limited funding to clear levees would prevent or hinder projects to fix structural or seepage problems; and that existing vegetation provides erosion control and removing it could increase risk of scouring and slope failure and compromise levee integrity. The state Department of Water Resources estimated compliance costs to be $7.8 billion.

The California Department of Water Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife stated that implementation of the vegetation prohibition would “reduce public safety in California, result in extensive and unnecessary environmental damage, and remove the Corps’ responsibility to assist state and local maintaining agencies in ensuring the integrity of California’s levee system.”

Now, thanks to the litigation by conservation groups, objections by well-informed California agencies and officials, and the recent action by Congress, there is the opportunity for levee vegetation decisions to be guided by science instead of by a disastrous one-size-fits-all clearcutting policy.

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