FORT WAYNE – The U.S. House approved legislation Wednesday evening that would give Fort Wayne and other cities greater control of their levee systems.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act contained an amendment by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from ordering the widespread removal of trees and bushes from America’s earthen flood barriers.
Stutzman’s measure was part of a block of amendments endorsed in a voice vote. The House later passed the amended bill, which would provide for conservation and development projects for the nation’s waterways, in a 417-3 vote – a rare show of bipartisanship in the Republican-controlled chamber.
The Democratic Senate approved its version of a water resources bill in May. A conference committee of senators and House members will try to resolve the differences.
Stutzman said in a floor speech broadcast by C-SPAN that his proposal “saves the city of Fort Wayne $25 million and makes levee safety the highest priority.”
His measure would cancel Army Corps guidelines for tree removal adopted after Hurricane Katrina damaged levees in New Orleans in 2005. The Corps believes that tree roots can weaken levees that protect communities against flooding.
The amendment stipulates that existing vegetation does not have to be removed unless it presents “an unacceptable safety risk.”
Fort Wayne’s city government supported Stutzman’s legislation. In a news release issued by Stutzman’s office, Mayor Tom Henry said the measure “would have a positive impact on Fort Wayne.”
The projected $25 million in savings was based on what the city paid in 2012 to eliminate vegetation and rebuild 1,100 feet of levee along Edgewater Avenue west of the Tecumseh Street bridge, according to Public Works Director Bob Kennedy. The bill for that project, completed in the past two years, came to $600,000.
Kennedy said seven miles of the city’s 10-mile levee system are heavily wooded.
“The city could not bear that type of a cost to clear-cut all of these levees. Not only that, it destroys all the natural habitat” for river creatures, Kennedy said in a telephone interview.
He said the city will continue to remove dead and uprooted trees from the earthen levees along the St Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers.
“We do not think a healthy tree is a detriment to our levees,” Kennedy said, noting that the Corps planted trees when building the city’s levees in the 1990s.
“In 2009, we had the second-highest-ever crest on the St. Joe River and zero problems” with levees, Kennedy said, adding that the St. Marys levees held against a record crest in 2003.
He said the Corps should evaluate levees on a case-by-case basis rather than with a blanket rule.
Rod Renkenberger, executive director of the Maumee River Basin Commission, sides with the Corps’ policymakers and said he contacted Stutzman’s staff Wednesday to oppose the amendment.
“Any type of wooded vegetation left to grow on a levee is ultimately going to compromise the integrity of that levee.
“… Those levees have to be maintained to protect their integrity,” said Renkenberger, whose agency promotes flood control in Allen, Adams, DeKalb, Noble, Steuben and Wells counties.
The root mass of a tree can create a pathway for floodwaters, he said, and perpetually shaded river banks thwart the growth of grass and encourage soil erosion. Additionally, windstorms can uproot trees, leaving holes in levees.
“We try to be as environmentally conscious as we possibly can,” Renkenberger said about floodplain managers. “But a levee system is a public safety issue.”
He said Fort Wayne’s levees protect 4,000 property owners from floods.
“Trust me, if the levee fails here in Fort Wayne, we’re going to have a catastrophic failure,” Renkenberger said.