Soon owners of trees adjacent to the dike system will get formal notices from the DPW that they will be cut down and their root systems removed. I know I’ll miss the dramatic entryway to the path that runs along its summit.
Off of Pomeroy Terrace just where the road jogs left and becomes Williams Street there’s a tunnel, an archway of branches from a group of yew trees; it reminds me of those secret gateways in children’s books that lead into a fantasy world of spirits and gnomes.
This path under the yew trees (really overgrown brushes) breaks into the open quickly, giving you vistas of the valley from on top of the levee. In the many years since the levee was constructed, despite frequent mowings, brush and trees have grown up around its base. The recent inauguration of the storm-water fees have made it possible for the DPW to finally respond to the yearly problems pointed out by inspections of the Department of Army Engineers (DOAE?).
In the wake of hurricane Katrina, the agency issued standards for vegetation removal requiring removal of all shrubs and trees from the nation’s levees, and a protective corridor about fifteen feet wide on both sides where only grass could grow. The primary object of the corridor was to facilitate access to the base of the levee in case of emergency. The expense of this edict to California, and the perceived impact on endangered species, wildlife and the habitat, gave birth to some pushback. Evidently especially in over-developed California, the levee system was the last refuge for many endangered species who hung out in marshy areas and rivers nearby. On April 15, 2010, the California Department of Water Resources and the California Department of Fish and Game submitted extensive comments on those new federal guidelines, and following a successful lawsuit, the Department of Army Engineers issued a new ETL. It was dated 30 April 2014 (ETL 1110-2-583). Evidently the court found that the DOAE had very little science to back up their policy. When levees failed in Katrina, they failed because of bad engineering, not because falling trees weakened them. The consensus among many agencies was that the policy on requesting variances was overly bureaucratic and expensive.
When I heard that the DPW was going out to bid for vegetation removal, I went in and looked at the contract. It is based on the old memorandum issued in 2009. When the Ward Three Civic Association wanted the DPW to spare the yew trees, they said any change in the plan would involve an expensive variance, and be approved by the DOAE. This policy on requesting expensive variances for every change in the clear-cutting operation sounds like it is taken from the old policy. This got my back up. It seems whenever I go into the DPW and ask to look for documents, you get a nasty surprise. Here it was putting a contract out to bid based on superseded guidelines. The newer pro-vegetation guidelines encourage the local communities to look at the implications of their clearance and maintenance programs, and consider their impact on the environment and wildlife. The Department will now not decertify your levee system if you decide to leave some trees bordering your system.
“We removed vegetation as a requirement for eligibility in PL84-99. In other words, we no longer move a system to inactive under PL84-99 if there is an unacceptable level of vegetation.” (letter from Sally Rigione, Community Relations Advisor, U>S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District dated March 6, 2015.
In California and in the midwest, the DOAE is actually planting trees along the base of levees. Root systems are now seen as beneficial to levees, perhaps anchoring and protecting the base of levees. See this editorial. Right now, these policies are a work in progress. Maybe here on the east coast with our hurricanes, there is more likelihood of mature trees going down, pulling up their roots, and providing paths for flood water to undermine the levees. I have walked the dike and seen trees with fully developed crowns that definitely need to come down, some of them close to the pumping station. But maybe the DPW needs to go back and read the current regulations and lighten up a little bit.