Army Corps backs away from levee vegetation policy

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- Government agencies around the country will no longer have to remove trees and other vegetation from levees to qualify for disaster relief funding under a new interim policy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced.

Under the previous policy, the state of California had faced millions of dollars in removal costs to qualify for levee repair grants in the event of a flood, the Sacramento Bee (http://bit.ly/1ffzZlr) reported Tuesday.

In 2011, California sued the corps, saying it didn't follow federal environmental laws when it required the removal of most trees and shrubs on federal levees. Environmental groups that want to preserve levee vegetation in Idaho and California also sued over the previous policy.

A federal judge in 2012 struck down a motion by the corps to dismiss that case. The federal flood-control agency now says it will continue to inspect levies but will not withhold disaster funding if vegetation standards are not met. The vegetation rating will be informational only.

The new policy is considered a victory for environmentalists, said Lisa Belenky, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, who along with Friends of the River and Defenders of Wildlife sued the corps over the policy in California. She said the interim policy will protect riparian vegetation on levees nationwide and the birds, fish and frogs that depend on healthy stream systems.

"The corps now admits the need to change their underlying policy directives that ignore regional differences and the science," Belenky said "The corps says they will develop and implement a new policy in an open public process -- we intend to hold them to that promise."

The corps has said that trees threaten levee safety because roots could serve as a path for seepage, or trees could topple over in a storm and tear out chunks of a levee. Corps vegetation standards allow nothing but short grass.

Corps officials say they expect the interim rule to become permanent.

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Information from: The Sacramento Bee, http://www.sacbee.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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