Battle Over Levee Safety

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Joe Rosato Jr.
    A river cuts through the tidal lands of Eden Landing. In about a year, workers will knock down the levees allowing the waters to cover the old salt flats.

    There's a showdown brewing over California's levees.

    Federal rules mandate that levees be cleared of brush and debris, but some local regulators have refused to comply. They cite expense, aesthetic concerns, and ecological damage as potential consequences.

    Numerous sensitive habitats line levees around the state, home to threatened species of plants and animals. The current situation has become a Catch-22: jurisdictions are required by levee laws to remove foliage, but also required by environmental laws to retain it.

    Federal rules are clear: particularly in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the Army Corps of Engineers wants to see all levees stripped free of foliage. Large plants could damage the structures during heavy weather, which would expose low-lying areas to flooding.

    If local officials refuse to comply, they could become inelligible for relief if the levees do eventually fail. In addition, nearby homeowners may be on the hook for obtaining expensive flood insurance.

    For now, local officials hope that the Army Corps of Engineers will inspect levees on a case-by-case basis, judging each environment and hopefully granting exemptions. But that may be a long-shot: the agency has firmly resisted granting any exemptions to its policy.