River levees and treaty rights

The Seattle Times ran a story over the weekend by AP reporter Phoung Le about how local governments, resource agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers have different points of view on levee management. Specifically, if the corps should require the removal of trees and other vegetation from levees.

Le points to eroding treaty rights as one of the angles of the debate:

“We want safe levees, bottom line,” said Patricia Graesser, a spokeswoman with the corps’ Seattle district, which covers Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. Nationwide, the corps has authority over about 14,700 miles of levees in its levee rehabilitation program.

“We have salmon swimming up against our levees where other parts of the country do not,” Graesser said of the Northwest. “What we’re trying to do is: What can we do to keep levees safe and also meet requirements under ESA (Endangered Species Act) and (tribal) treaty trust?”

A corps policy currently being finalized allows exceptions to the national standard, which calls for a vegetation-free zone within 15-feet of levees. But local, state and tribal officials say the process is too costly and impractical. The corps says the collaborative approach will allow sponsors to determine early in the process whether to seek a variance.

Steve Landino, Washington state habitat director for the National Marine Fisheries Service, worried the process would be so burdensome that local levee managers will cut down the trees to comply. “That’s not going to be good for fish,” he said.

Writing to the corps in April, federal wildlife and fisheries experts said ripping out vegetation on or near levees could further harm habitat for Northwest salmon and steelhead already on the brink. American Indian tribes warned the policy risks violating tribal fishing rights. And local levee districts urged the corps to allow for regional exceptions to its national policy.

NWIFC chairman Billy Frank Jr. wrote about this issue last fall, saying that the corps needs to align its levee policy with salmon recovery and protecting tribal harvest rights:

Dikes and levees may be good for development, but they are bad for salmon habitat. I’m not saying that all dikes and levees should be removed. Floodplain management that is good for salmon can also be good for flood control. In fact, with the proper vegetation, levees could make a small contribution to salmon recovery.

Salmon need cool, clean water to survive. In healthy river systems, trees and shrubs along the banks help keep temperatures low. But when dikes or levees line a river, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says most of that vegetation must be cut down. The corps has started enforcing that rule all over the country.

It’s a one-size-fits-all approach that might work on the Mississippi River, but is out of place here in western Washington. Some people say the corps is simply trying to cover its bases following Hurricane Katrina, which wiped out much of New Orleans a few years ago.

Despite the huge cost of clear-cutting trees and plants on levees, there hasn’t been any kind of study to find out whether vegetation actually weakens them. In fact, many scientists believe the root systems help make levees stronger.