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Group Initiates Lawsuit To Stop Corps of Engineers from Stripping Levees
by Dan Bacher
Monday Aug 2nd, 2010 11:15 AM
“There’s little proof that trees threaten levees in California," said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. "In fact, research shows that trees can strengthen levees, and a scientific review by the Corps last year determined that some vegetation may help stabilize them."
Group Initiates Lawsuit To Stop Corps of Engineers from Stripping Levees

by Dan Bacher

One of the most stupid things I have ever seen the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers do is strip trees, brush and other vegetation from the levees of the Sacramento River and other Central Valley rivers and sloughs.

My late father Al, a civil engineer, always told me how destructive this policy of channelization was to the rivers, riparian corridors and fish and wildlife of the Central Valley and Delta.

Finally, an organization has found the courage to challenge the Corps' new policy to resume the destruction of riparian corridors that my father so adamantly opposed. The Center for Biological Diversity today sent a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the new policy that would require stripping levees of vegetation that provides important habitat for imperiled fish, birds and other species in California.

"The Corps already has a nationwide policy requiring removal of trees and other vegetation from levees; now it wants to cancel all exceptions to that policy and require all levees to be cleared without evaluating the impacts on endangered species or their habitats in California," according to a statement from the Center.

“Levee safety can be achieved without a scorched-earth policy that will destroy habitat for struggling species like salmon, steelhead trout, and willow flycatchers,” said Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center. “The Corps has failed to consult with federal wildlife agencies about the impacts of vegetation-free zones on California’s endangered species. It’s left too little time for levee operators to get new variances.”

After Hurricane Katrina, the Corps made major changes to its nationwide levee policies, including new standards in 2009 banning vegetation on or within 15 feet of levees, according to Miller. Earlier this year, the agency adopted a variance policy requiring trees and bushes to be removed by September 30 unless a new variance was granted, forcing levee owners and operators to scramble to meet the deadline. Although the Corps extended the deadline by an additional year in some areas, such as parts of the Central Valley, the policy could affect many other levees throughout the state.

Miller said the changes may "significantly affect" endangered species that rely on vegetation for shade and complex habitat: the chinook salmon, steelhead trout, giant garter snake, least Bell’s vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher and Valley elderberry longhorn beetle.

"Before the decision was made, the Corps should have consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, as required by the Endangered Species Act," stated Miller. "In many Southern California coastal streams, least vireos and flycatchers nest in riparian vegetation; longhorn beetles inhabit elderberry trees along Central Valley levees. Salmon and steelhead populations could suffer from clearing that reduces vegetation and shade along waterways that are confined within levees."

“There’s little proof that trees threaten levees in California," added Miller. "In fact, research shows that trees can strengthen levees, and a scientific review by the Corps last year determined that some vegetation may help stabilize them. The Corps’ own documents admit that removing vegetation may harm endangered species habitats, but instead of undertaking the necessary consultation with wildlife agencies, the Corps has tried to push that off onto local levee owners.”

I appaud Miller and his organization for standing up to the Corps' new "scorched earth" policy towards California levees. In an ecosystem ravaged by massive water exports, water pollution and invasive species, the last thing we need is for the Corps of Engineers to remove the riparian corridor from our rivers and sloughs.

This "strip the levees" policy must be stopped, along with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's plans to build an environmentally destructive and enormously expensive peripheral canal and new dams. Everybody that cares about environmental justice and the restoration of Central Valley salmon, Delta smelt, green sturgeon and other fish populations should oppose the peripheral canal, the 2010 Water Bond and the Corps' plans to strip the vegetation off the state's levees.

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