Thursday, July 19, 2007

Walters on Levee Vegetation

In what looks like a classic public snafu, we might be moving to a situation where all the planting being done now could be torn up within a year.

Sometimes one wonders if public leadership reads the news.

Dan Walters: Vegetation on levees in danger
By Dan Walters - Bee Columnist
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, July 19, 2007

State and federal governments spent hundreds of millions of dollars last year on an emergency levee repair project along the Sacramento River and other Northern California waterways.

The 2005-06 winter had been very wet, with flows on the Sacramento approaching 100,000 cubic feet per second, and water officials, with Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans a fresh memory, were concerned that another wet winter could breach levees and cause serious flooding.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded the Legislature to approve a $500 million emergency appropriation for the repairs, and the federal government made its own commitment. Men, machines -- including a fleet of barges and tugboats -- and immense quantities of rock and earth were mobilized to shore up the levees before winter rains began.

As it turned out, last winter was a mild one with subpar precipitation, and official concerns have turned from flood to drought, but workers returned to the repaired levees this year to begin a new phase, still under way, of planting thousands of trees and shrubs for esthetic, ecological and engineering reasons. The cost: many more millions of dollars.

The current operational guidelines of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees levee construction, maintenance and repairs along major waterways, call for planting vegetation on California levees to provide shade and wildlife habitat. And during last year's repair project, great pains were taken to preserve existing trees where necessary.

While workers are busily digging holes, planting and installing watering systems on the otherwise stark levees, however, the national Corps of Engineers office is busily writing new regulations that would not only prohibit such plantings but require local and state levee maintenance agencies to dig up and bulldoze existing vegetation or lose federal support. It's entirely possible, in other words, that all those costly, brand-new trees and shrubs could be ripped out in a few months if the new rules are not modified.