Groups sue Army Corps of Engineers over levee tree-removal policy

A controversial federal policy that could require millions of trees to be cut down on Central Valley levees is the target of a lawsuit.

Three environmental groups filed suit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Monday in federal court in Sacramento.

The Army Corps sets national standards for levee safety. In 2007 it unveiled a revised maintenance policy that forbids trees or shrubs on levees. Instead, only short grass is allowed on levees and within 15 feet on either side.

The policy raises significant concerns in California, where levee vegetation composes much of the remaining 5 percent of the Central Valley’s historic riparian forest. As such, it is crucial shade and habitat for migrating endangered fish, as well as nesting habitat for many endangered birds.

“This would be the most massive intentional infliction of environmental damage on our rivers that we’ve seen in modern times,” said Bob Wright, senior counsel at Friends of the River in Sacramento. “It’s mind-boggling.”

Other plaintiffs are Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The plaintiffs allege the Army Corps policy violates the Endangered Species Act, because the agency did not consult with federal wildlife agencies; and the National Environmental Policy Act, because it didn’t prepare an environmental study. Army Corps spokesman Pete Pierce declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The policy has not yet been carried out in the Central Valley. State and local agencies struck a deal with the Army Corps to delay it until next year while they work out a compromise.

The Corps also created a process for local agencies to obtain exemptions so trees can remain. However, this may require costly levee redesigns.

The potential removal of thousands of trees in the Sacramento area alarms many residents who value their shade and scenery, particularly along the American River Parkway.

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