Article published Apr 21, 2007 Uprooting for levee's sake

By Greg Hilburn

Those giant oaks that have provided a cool, green canopy along Monroe's Riverside Drive
for decades could be yanked out by their roots this summer under new Army Corps of Engineers' regulations.

The same fate awaits the shady sycamores and majestic magnolias that line the backyards of homeowners and streets of cities and towns along more than 400 miles of the Tensas Basin levees.

No tree or flowering shrub is safe under new corps rules that require levees to be free and clear of such encroachments from 15 feet on either side of the toes of the levees.

"We've got one of the prettiest rivers in the world," West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris said.
"Why would we want to slaughter all of those old trees that may have been standing for a century?
I'm totally opposed to it until somebody proves it improves our protection from flooding."

The corps created its new manual, which governs all U.S. levees, in 2006 after Congress directed
it to review the safety of the country's levee systems following the levee failure in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. One of the new regulations requires the removal of trees and shrubs within
15 feet of the toes of the levees.

"The key is that we don't want anything to penetrate the levee that would impact its stability," said
Jim Spencer, the chief of flood control for the corps' Vicksburg, Miss., district.

But not everyone, including Spencer himself, believes that the trees pose a threat to any of the
levees in the Vicksburg District. "We don't believe there is a life safety issue in the district,"
Spencer said. "We don't think there is a danger with the trees. All of our levee systems passed inspection in 2006. We believe they're in very good shape." The Tensas levee system, which is maintained by the Tensas Basin Levee District, has earned 47 straight outstanding maintenance awards from the corps.

John Stringer, executive director of the district, and his board's directors have pleaded with the top corps officials to change the new policy. Stringer and Tensas commissioner Harris Brown
traveled to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to make their case to Maj. Gen. Don Riley,
the corps' national civil works director. "(Riley) said that the corps was taking another look at it," Stringer said. "We're hoping he'll ask the Vicksburg engineers to come in and make their own determination about whether the trees pose a threat to the levee."

But unless the Corps revises its manual, the Tensas Basin Levee District will be required to remove
the trees this year or risk being decertified and lose its qualifications for emergency funding.
"What's troubling is that they've given us one year to remove these trees at our expense,"
Stringer said. "If it's a verifiable safety issue we don't have an argument, but we don't believe that
the trees pose a safety threat." Stringer estimates that such a project would cost about $20,000 per mile, "and we've probably got 200 miles that would be impacted," he said.

Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo said he will join the fight to preserve the trees and shrubs.
"This regulation shouldn't apply across the board," Mayo said. "We don't have the same issues
here that they have in New Orleans. We don't have hurricanes."

Stringer said the project would impact more than just the trees. "You can't just cut the trees;
you have to remove the root systems," he said. "Those root systems are intertwined with utilities, swimming pools and plumbing. When you start snatching them out you're going to have a lot of problems."

"It's not practical," Brown said. "This would be a massive undertaking. We're hoping a wave of common sense washes over the corps." So are the people who live along the levees.
"Someone has to stand up and say, 'This is crazy,'" said Todd Harris, whose house, trees and
even a couple of horses touch the toe of the levee on Country Club Road in Monroe.
"There's no way on earth that they can enforce that regulation. People live here. It would be devastating." Harris said he will begin by calling his congressman, who said this week that he
will push for revisions even though the corps contends it was Congress that wanted beefed
up levee protection.

"This is going to put everybody in a bind," said 5th District U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman. "My opinion is that the corps is reacting to someone in New Orleans who said a falling tree could
have started the whole levee failure. "They're going to have a hard time pointing their finger at Congress. The corps is using the whole thing as an excuse to wash its hands of the levee systems
that have been under their control since the 1930s. We're going to try to head it off before it gets
too far along."

Nell Seegers, president of the Monroe Garden Study League, said tree and shrub removal along the levee would scar the community's aesthetic image, which is already suffering from a recent
economic develop study. The Competitive Strategies Group study said that Monroe "does not
show well as a community. It is not aesthetically pleasing to the eye." "As we've seen lately we're
not the most attractive community and this would make the situation worse," said Seegers,
whose club is an affiliate of the Garden Club of America. "This would certainly be a detriment to
our city and all of those along the levee. "I would hope that the (corps) would fine-tune this policy to zero in on real problems and not just make blanket regulations that don't make sense."

That's a possibility, Spencer said. "The policy is currently under review and we're expecting
guidance in the coming months that could clarify the situation," Spencer said. But until that happens, Spencer said the corps and the Tensas Basin Levee District must prepare to remove the trees. "The rule hasn't changed," he said. "We don't have a waiver, and unless we get one we're proceeding forward."