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Congress moves to ease up on levees

Removing vegetation decided case-by-case

Legislation that could stop the widespread removal of woody vegetation from the nation’s earthen levees, including those in Fort Wayne, has passed both houses of Congress.

The Democratic Senate voted 91-7 Thursday in favor of the conference report on the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which will provide for federal water conservation and development projects and policies.

The Republican House approved the report Tuesday by a 412-4 vote. The bipartisan legislation, which would spend $12.3 billion, goes next to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The bill includes a provision drafted by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, that would eliminate earlier guidance by the Army Corps of Engineers to have trees and bushes cleared from earthen flood barriers nationwide. The Army Corps has said that tree roots can weaken those levees.

Fort Wayne’s levee system covers 10 miles of three rivers, and most of it is heavily wooded. The city government spent $600,000 in recent years to remove vegetation from, and rebuild, 1,100 feet of levee along Edgewater Avenue west of the Tecumseh Street bridge.

Stutzman’s amendment would require the Army Corps to consider vegetation removal on a case-by-case basis and take into account “regional characteristics, habitat for species of concern, and levee performance.”

Mayor Tom Henry supported Stutzman’s amendment when he introduced it last year, and the Democratic mayor issued a statement Thursday applauding the passage of the water resources bill.

“This important legislation allows us to keep our levees safe and beautiful while protecting the riverbanks around them,” Henry said.

“It also ensures that Fort Wayne residents and visitors will be able to continue to enjoy the rivers that make our city so special.”

Stutzman and Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., voted in favor of the water resources legislation.

Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., did not vote Thursday; he is in Indiana this week to recover from previously scheduled eye surgery.