After Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made major changes to its nationwide levee policies, including new standards in 2009 banning vegetation on or within 15 feet of levees. Earlier this year, the agency adopted a variance policy requiring trees and bushes to be removed by September 30 unless a new variance was granted, forcing levee owners and operators to scramble to meet the deadline.  According to a recent notice of intent to sue letter issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, this new variance deadline may be impossible to meet for many levee owners or operators, and therefore could lead to the removal of all levee vegetation regardless of whether or not environmental review and consultation with the federal wildlife agencies has been completed.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s press release announces that levee vegetation provides important habitat to listed California’s threatened and endangered species, and therefore the Corps is required to consult with the federal wildlife agencies pursuant to the Endangered Species Act before moving forward with the new policy.  Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center, is quoted as saying:

Levee safety can be achieved without a scorched-earth policy that will destroy habitat for struggling species like salmon, steelhead trout, and willow flycatchers.  The Corps has failed to consult with federal wildlife agencies about the impacts of vegetation-free zones on California’s endangered species. It’s left too little time for levee operators to get new variances.

A related, contentious issue is whether vegetation actually impairs levees, or whether some vegetation can actually help stabilize them.