California's salmon and steelhead populations are on the brink of collapse. And a new federal policy formulated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina could finally send the fragile fisheries into the abyss.
Beginning next month, the US Army Corps of Engineers will start enforcing new regulations requiring that trees be cut down and vegetation removed from levees on the nation's waterways. The rules are a part of a national effort to upgrade levees and prevent disastrous floods. The corps came under heavy criticism when poorly maintained levees broke in New Orleans in August 2005.
But environmentalists say that trees and shrubs provide critical habitat for threatened and endangered species. Trees along the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, for example, provide much-needed shade that keep waterways cool for salmon and steelhead. "It's a one-size- fits-all attempt by the corps to respond to Hurricane Katrina, but it's not necessarily based on what is needed," said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Last week, the center notified the corps that it plans to file suit to stop the new regulations from going forward. The center also argues that the corps has ignored recent studies showing that deep-rooted trees and shrubs can strengthen levees — not harm them. In a letter earlier this year to the corps, the California Central Valley Flood Control Association, which represents seventy levee operators, made the same point. "In addition to their obvious ecological and species benefits," the group wrote, "recent slope stabilization studies indicate that vegetation can also provide structural integrity to the core of the levee, and help stabilize the earthen material to adverse conditions."
Environmentalists say the corps has turned federal environmental laws on their head. Typically, governmental agencies must conduct thorough reviews before implementing new policies that might harm the environment. But with its new regulations, the corps is requiring levee operators to conduct a review before they can receive a "variance" from having to implement them. Without a variance, levee operators could be fined or lose precious federal dollars. Corps officials in Sacramento did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
The Center for Biological Diversity contends that the September 30 deadline is not enough time to conduct environmental studies on the effects of clear-cutting levees. The center also contends the corps should have consulted first with US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service before adopting the new rules.