Central Valley Levees May Be Tree-Stripped

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – The Army Corps of Engineers plans to destroy virtually all that’s left of “the last 5 percent of once-thriving riparian forests in California’s Central Valley,” by stripping vegetation from 1,600 miles of federal levees, three environmental groups say.




     The groups claim the new federal policy already has killed 4,055 trees that were part of the last fragments of riparian forest that once lined the banks of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
     The nationwide policy, instituted in a 2007 white paper and implemented in the Central Valley with a 2009 technical letter, would kill the remaining 5 percent of Central Valley riparian forests, the environmentalists say. Friends of the River, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Corps of Engineers in Federal Court.
     Across the West, once-great expanses of riparian forest disappeared as settlers drained rivers by developing cities, agriculture and mines.
     Implementation of the Corps of Engineers’ policy to remove vegetation on a 15-foot strip along both sides of Central Valley levees would destroy river forest there, which in many cases has been restored by federal and state tree-planting programs, and has thrived for decades, the groups say.
     And the stupid project would set a dangerous precedent for other vegetation-stripping projects in California, they add.
     The riparian forest “provides essential habitat for the survival of several endangered species, scenic beauty and shade for aesthetic and recreational enjoyment of the rivers by people,” the complaint states.
     It provides “close, affordable” access to natural scenery for residents of the heavily populated valley, the groups add.
     The Corps of Engineers claims its plan will reduce damage from floods, though the California Department of Water Resources, according to the complaint: “The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) objected to the Corps that the new policy ‘would constitute a significant shift in the Corps practice in California and would have serious and adverse public safety and environmental consequences.’ DWR Letter May 11, 2007. DWR also reminded the Corps that ‘Over the years, the Corps and the State have reached an agreement on how trees and other vegetation can co-exist with public safety function of levees in the Central Valley. This long-lived agreement would now be ignored and set aside by the new, nationwide policy.’ Id. Other agencies, groups, and individuals also objected to the Corps in writing and demanded that the Corps comply with NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] by preparing an EIS [environmental impact statement] and comply with the ESA [Endangered Species Act] by consulting with fish and wildlife agencies before adopting a policy requiring in essence the clear-cutting of the remaining trees and shrubs on and alongside 1,600 miles of levees in California.”
     But the Corps of Engineers blew off all these concerns in its April 10, 2009, Engineering Technical Letter establishing “‘Guidelines for Landscape Planting and Vegetation Management at Levees, Floodwalls, Embankment Dams, and Appurtenant Structures.’ The ETL requires a ‘vegetation-free zone’ corridor along levees including the levee plus 15 feet on each side. Id. ¶. 2-2 at p. 2-1. The vegetation-free zone prohibits all vegetation except grass. Id. ¶. 2-2(a) at p. 2-1. The ETL requires that ‘All vegetation not in compliance with this ETL shall be removed.’ Id. ¶ 5-3(a) at p. 5-1.”
     The environmental groups demand an environmental impact statement and a protective injunction. Their lead counsel is Lisa Belenky with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.

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