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Army Corps v. California trees

Six years and thousands of miles away from the poorly designed flood walls and levees whose post-Katrina failure inundated New Orleans, environmental groups in California have filed a federal lawsuit to prevent what they contend is an unproven, costly and potentially damaging flood protection strategy ordered by US Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps, under scrutiny after a natural disaster became a man-made catastrophe, decreed in 2007 that local levee districts would in the future lose guarantees of federal aid and loans unless all trees and shrubs were removed from levees under its nominal jurisdiction around the nation.The lawsuit, filed by California-based Friends of the River, Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, say the plan is in violation of federal law because the Corps has declined to perform an environmental studies or seek input from federal environmental or wildlife agencies, according to a story by Matt Weiser of The Sacramento Bee.

A 2009 report by Felipe Nieves of the Associated Press was so critical of the initial edict, it prompted a ham-handed response from the Corps that reads more as an example of bureaucratic linguistic gymnastics than a rebuttal.

The crux of the issue is the Corps’ contention that trees and tree roots weaken earthen levees and contributed to spectacular failures in New Orleans. The claim, along with much of the Corps work along the lower Mississippi is sharply challenged and criticized in the documentary film, The Big Uneasy. Whether trees and tree roots make earthen levees more, or less stable apparently remains open to debate. The point becomes more murky as tree removal and decaying roots will leave behind invisible fissures and weak points within weak, and century-old piles of dirt. Enviros, in their suit, contend that tree removal, means the elimination, not just of nesting habitat for endangered birds, but of shade. That cooling shade not only reduces the amount of precious California water lost to evaporation, but maintains river temperatures cool enough for salmon and other endangered aquatic life.

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