While this ruling will probably result in weaker levees—a common sense conclusion not yet ratified by science—the politics of it pretty much determined the outcome, as reported by the Sacramento Bee.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided it will no longer force local levee agencies to choose between keeping trees on their levees and losing federal money for disaster assistance.
On Monday, the Army Corps announced in a new “interim” policy that it will not disqualify levees that fail to meet its maintenance criteria from receiving disaster relief funding, essentially granting a reprieve to thousands of miles of California riverside habitat. The move appears to resolve, for now, a long-running policy dispute that pitted the state of California against the powerful federal flood-control agency.
“This is really quite a substantial change,” said Tammy Conforti, levee safety program manager at the Army Corps. “That specific vegetation criteria won’t be one of the criteria that has to be met.”
Until now, the agency has said that trees threaten levee safety and must be removed. It argued that tree roots could serve as a path for seepage through a levee, or that trees could topple over in a storm and tear out chunks of a levee. Its vegetation standards allow nothing but short grass, not even small shrubs or trees.
Levees with too many trees risked being disqualified from a federal program that provides millions of dollars in levee repair grants in the event of a flood. Such a disqualification also put communities at risk of displeasing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which sets flood insurance rates.
The policy pushed California levee districts to make a tough choice: Spend millions of dollars cutting down trees essential to habitat and risk violating other environmental laws, or risk going without federal flood relief money.
There has been little scientific proof that trees actually threaten levee stability. Officials at the California Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife both oppose the policy, warning it could bankrupt local levee districts and destroy the last of the state’s riverside habitat.
Retrieved March 25, 2014 from http://www.sacbee.com/2014/03/24/6264712/army-corps-eases-up-on-its-stance.html