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Groups Sue to Stop Removal of Trees from Levees

Dan Bacher: The Corps acknowledges vegetation removal may harm endangered species habitats, but instead of undertaking necessary consultation with wildlife agencies has tried to shift the burden of implementation and environmental compliance to local agencies and flood-control districts

My dad Alfred, who worked for decades as a civil engineer for CalTrans, used to complain to me about the stupidity of past efforts by the US Army Corps of Engineers to remove trees from levees along the Sacramento River and Delta waterways.


Not only was this unsightly and bad for fish and wildlife, but he told me, as we were driving around the California Delta to fish for catfish and stripers, how removing the trees actually weakened the levees! He passed away in 2005, but if he was still alive, he would be very happy to hear that a lawsuit was filed to stop yet another hare-brained scheme by the Corps to remove trees from California levees.

Friends of the River, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife filed a lawsuit in federal court on June 20, the day after Father’s Day, challenging the implementation of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers program in California requiring removal of all trees and shrubs from levees despite clear evidence that this vegetation provides important habitat for endangered fish, birds and other species, and its removal may actually reduce levee safety.

This destructive program is being implemented under the Obama administration, an administration that is pushing the privatization of ocean fisheries through the “catch shares” program, backing the construction of a peripheral canal to export more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and fast-tracking the FDA approval process for genetically engineered salmon.

“This misguided program would further fragment remnants of Central Valley riparian forest that are essential habitat for endangered species and also provide scenic beauty and recreational enjoyment of the rivers,” said Bob Wright, senior counsel for Friends of the River. “The Corps must abide by environmental laws and make environmentally informed decisions. We will pursue this case vigorously and as rapidly as the court allows.”

“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,” according to a joint press release from the three groups. “Although 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 in California.”

“The Corps adopted a new standard requiring removal of all vegetation from levees without environmental review, consideration of regional differences or scientific support,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Not only is there little proof trees or well-managed vegetation threaten levees in California, the Corps’ own research shows trees stabilize and strengthen levees. The Corps must incorporate ongoing scientific research before proceeding.”

Miller said the changes could significantly affect endangered species in the Central Valley and Southern California that rely on vegetation along levees for habitat, such as chinook salmon, steelhead trout, green sturgeon, giant garter snake, least Bell’s vireo, riparian brush rabbit, southwestern willow flycatcher and valley elderberry longhorn beetle.

Central Valley fall-run chinook stocks collapsed to record low population levels in 2008 and 2009, due to a combination of massive water exports out of the California Delta, declining water quality and poor ocean conditions. Although there has been an upswing in the federal government’s ocean salmon abundance estimate this year, the endangered Sacramento River winter-run chinook and spring-run chinook populations continue to decline. Removing riparian vegetation along Central Valley levees will result in higher water temperatures and increased sedimentation that are deadly to imperiled fish populations.

Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other Delta fish species have declined to record low population levels in recent years also, again spurred by water exports to corporate agribusiness and southern California water agencies.

“In many Southern California coastal streams, least vireos and flycatchers nest in riparian vegetation; longhorn beetles inhabit elderberry trees, and protected fish swim in rivers along Central Valley levees,” according to the groups. “Riparian vegetation reduces sedimentation harmful to anadromous fish and provides important shade that reduces water temperatures, which is critical for salmonids and other aquatic species.”

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The groups contend the Corps ignored its legal obligation to analyze the impacts of this new program under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement before adopting the decision. They also say the Corps ignored its requirement, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), to consult with federal wildlife agencies for the impacts on threatened and endangered species.

“Levee safety can be achieved without clearcutting some of the surviving riparian forests in the Central Valley and destroying habitat for struggling species like salmon, steelhead trout and willow flycatchers,” emphasized Kelly Catlett, a California representative of Defenders of Wildlife.

The Corps for decades 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. “The Corps acknowledges vegetation removal may harm endangered species habitats, but instead of undertaking necessary consultation with wildlife agencies has tried to shift the burden of implementation and environmental compliance to local agencies and flood-control districts,” the groups stated.

A call to the Corps of Engineers office in San Francisco regarding the agency’s rationale for the removing the trees hadn’t been returned at press time.

However, virtually everybody other than the Corps, ranging from state agencies to environmentalists, is opposed to the clear cutting of state state’s levees. 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, have objected to or formally expressed concerns about the program.

Among the concerns are that compliance and subsequent environmental mitigation would be extremely costly; diverting limited funding to clear levees will prevent or hinder projects to fix structural or seepage problems; 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 estimates the compliance cost at $7.8 billion.

The California Department of Fish and Game and Department of Water Resources have stated that implementation 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.”

The agencies object to “attempting to address complex technical, financial, legal and institutional problems with a highly prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to vegetation management.”

Hopefully, this lawsuit by the three environmental groups will stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from its “slash and destroy” policy of removing all trees and shrubs from levees on Central Valley and other California rivers. Kudos to Friends of the River, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife for filing this much-needed litigation to stop the clear cutting of California levees!

dan bacher

For more information, contact: Bob Wright, Friends of the River, (916) 442-3155 x 207; Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 669-7357; and Kelly Catlett, Defenders of Wildlife, (916) 313-5800 x 110.

Dan Bacher