Environmentalists criticize Elk Grove's planned tree removal on levee

Published: Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013 - 8:36 am

A stretch of landscaped levee where the city of Elk Grove plans to remove 140 trees and plants at a cost of about $20,000 is barely a quarter of a mile long.

To some, the work to be conducted next month near the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is but a tiny blip on the environmental radar.

But to others, it's a classic representation of the tug of war over a hugely controversial U.S. Army Corps of Engineers policy – reiterated in 2007 after Hurricane Katrina – that allows only grass on levees nationally.

The state of California officially opposes the policy, arguing there is little evidence that trees threaten levees and that there are better ways to spend limited flood protection dollars. In addition, Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill in Congress that would order the Army Corps to create regional exceptions for the management of trees on levees.

In Elk Grove, officials have decided to remove vegetation from several sections of its 4-mile levee, in keeping with the Corps' standard, so it won't lose eligibility for federal assistance to rebuild the levee if it fails in a flood or storm.

"The bottom line is there's a lot at stake if we are not in compliance," Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis said in an interview. "So we are moving quickly to ensure our residents are not harmed."

Chris Gray, a spokesman for the Sacramento district of the Corps of Engineers, said the grass-only policy in this case was part of a 1997 agreement between the Corps and Sacramento County. The agreement was inherited by the city of Elk Grove, which incorporated in 2000.

An irrigation system lies under some areas of the levee, and trees have toppled, uplifting root balls and creating holes where failures can occur. Among the trees to be removed are redwoods, oaks, pines and fruit trees.

The existing landscaping is "very clearly inhibiting inspection" of the site, Gray said.

The state had negotiated with the Corps to modify the grass-only policy for years. After those talks fell short, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife last year filed a federal lawsuit, alleging the levee policy violates the Endangered Species Act and other laws.

Bob Wright, senior counsel for Friends of the River, said he believes the policy puts "cities like Elk Grove in a tough spot," because it forces them to choose between trees and federal aid for prospective levee repairs.

Friends of the River and other environmental groups have filed a suit of their own against the Corps.

On Wednesday night, at a community meeting held by Elk Grove and the Corps near the levee, Wright peppered city and Corps officials with questions.

After one question, Darren Wilson, Elk Grove's engineering services manager, told Wright that the city Planning Department had determined that the California Environmental Quality Act was not an issue at the site.

Wilson also said there are no endangered species at the site.

Wright asked how to get copies of emails between the city and the Corps. Wilson replied that Wright could ask for "all email correspondence" regarding the levee.

Wright later told The Bee he views the Corps policy as a "national anti-tree policy" and a "one-size-fits-all prohibition."

A day after the meeting, however, the Corps' Gray countered that there's "quite a bit of difference between the Elk Grove levee and work being done elsewhere."

"Normally, you're looking at riparian habitat or species that are in the Endangered Species Act," Gray said. "You have those in the main stem of the river.

"In this case, it's a dry levee. It's not on the main river stem. These are trees that were planted intentionally. They're not naturally occurring.

"So it's quite different."

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Read more articles by Loretta Kalb

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