California levees may lose trees due to federal rules

The federal government is pressing forward with a policy that could require trees to be stripped from California levees, eliminating what shade and wildlife habitat remain along the state's rivers.

An interim agreement appears likely to shield the state's levee habitat until 2012. But after that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could impose the new rules, which would allow nothing but short grass on most Central Valley levees.

Levee maintenance agencies can seek an exemption – called a variance – but even then, many trees would not be spared.

"The proposed policy will likely have devastating environmental consequences," Mark Cowin and John McCamman, directors of the state Water Resources and Fish and Game departments, told the corps in a joint letter April 15. "We urge the Corps to cease implementation of this new policy and procedures."

Levee experts and environmentalists alike said they are disappointed the federal government has shown little flexibility, despite earlier assurances.

California long has operated under a different policy than the rest of the nation, with Army Corps consent. The allowance for mature trees reflected the unique history of flood protection in the state, which left levees as virtually the only remaining riverside wildlife habitat.

After Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, however, the Army Corps began imposing its national levee maintenance rules on all U.S. flood management agencies.

The move prompted a backlash in California, and federal officials offered a conciliatory response.

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