The notice was filed on the eve of a conference in Seattle hosted by the Army Corps to discuss its levee vegetation policy.
"Cutting down trees on levees is a doubly bad idea. It destroys habitat for endangered salmon and can even compromise flood protection," said Michael Garrity, Washington conservation director for American Rivers. "We can and must find a common sense way to manage these levees that maximizes flood safety, uses taxpayer dollars wisely, and protects our salmon."
In the notice, American Rivers said that the Army Corps of Engineers' levee maintenance program violates the Endangered Species Act because it harms federally protected Chinook and chum salmon, as well as steelhead in Puget Sound. The Corps' levee Rehabilitation and Inspection program ("RIP") requires that trees over two to four inches in diameter must be cut from levees in order to be eligible for federal repair and emergency funds. But cutting the trees also removes shade that helps keep rivers cool, as well as habitat for insects that provide a key food source for salmon.
While the Corps' levee maintenance requirements are premised on the idea that larger trees weaken levees, the weight of scientific evidence shows that assumption to be incorrect. For example, during recent floods in the Pacific Northwest, levees with substantial native vegetation on them remained unaffected, while those meeting the Corps' RIP standards sustained heavy damage.
The issue arose in January 2007 on King County's Snoqualmie, Green, Cedar, Raging and Tolt rivers. The Corps informed the county that in order to remain eligible for RIP funding, the county would have to comply with Corps standards, which meant removing hundreds of streamside trees. King County has resisted the Corps' demands, stating that removal of streamside vegetation is inconsistent with numerous salmon recovery plans and projects, and that the vegetation actually strengthens the levees. Both the county and American Rivers have contacted the Corps requesting that they delay tree cutting while they consider granting the county a waiver from the standard vegetation management requirements, but the Corps has so far refused to do so.
"It's time to reform the Corps' policies so that they serve the public's interest in proper flood control and salmon recovery," said Jan Hasselman, an Earthjustice attorney representing American Rivers. "With a new partner leading the federal government we're confident we can work this out in a way where everyone will benefit."
While the Corps' levee maintenance and repair program is implemented nationwide, the groups are targeting its implementation in Puget Sound. The Puget Sound Partnership Action Agenda and the federally adopted Puget Sound chinook recovery plan both call for updating the Corps' vegetation standards and improving levee design standards.
Global warming is likely to bring more frequent and intense floods, as well as higher river temperatures, to the Puget Sound region, increasing the stresses on levees and endangered salmon. American Rivers is urging the Corps to update its levee policy now, to prepare for these new challenges in the coming years.
"We need a broader vision for our rivers that incorporates effective flood protection strategies and also protects critical fish and wildlife habitat," said Garrity. "In the future this will mean restoring and protecting floodplains and wetlands and setting back levees to give rivers more room to move. When it comes to flood protection and public safety, we need to work with nature, not against it."
Michael Garrity, American Rivers, (206) 213-0330, ext. 11
Jan Hasselman, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7480, ext. 25