The state has followed through on its threat to battle U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rules that could require millions of trees to be cut down from California levees, including some in Sacramento.
The California Department of Fish and Game on Wednesday filed suit against the Army Corps, alleging its levee maintenance policy fails to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act and other laws.
The allegations are similar to those contained in a lawsuit filed last year against the Corps by Friends of the River and other environmental groups. Fish and Game initially sought to join that lawsuit, but was denied on technical grounds.
The California Department of Water Resources, which oversees levee safety in the state, also opposes the Corps policy but has not taken legal action. The agency has warned stripping trees from thousands of miles of levees in the Central Valley would cost $7.5 billion, diverting precious funds from more important flood safety tasks.
Fish and Game notes in a news release that the Army Corps "encouraged and even required" tree planting on California levees as early as 1955. It also notes that research by the Corps itself, in 1991 and 1999, proved that flood damage was reduced on levees with vegetation compared to those without.
The Army Corps maintains its policy is not new, and that it merely made uniform a pre-existing national policy that had not been applied in California before. The policy, first imposed in California in 2007, allows only short grass to grow on levees on the assertion that tree roots hasten water leakage that could undermine a levee.
Levee districts that fail to comply would be ineligible for federal disaster assistance.
California retains only 5 percent of its original riparian, or river-adjacent, habitat. Much of what remains consists of trees and shrubs growing on levees, which provides food and shelter for salmon, Swainson's hawk, Western yellow-billed cuckoo and numerous other endangered species.
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