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Stutzman says levee amendment will save city millions

Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, introduced legislation Tuesday that would prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from arbitrarily ordering trees removed from earthen levees.

Stutzman said in a statement that his amendment to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act could save Fort Wayne's city government $25 million.

"The Army Corps of Engineers issued a broad directive to remove vegetation from levees across the country," Stutzman said. "This was unfair to Fort Wayne taxpayers and put an unnecessary burden on the city."

His measure would prohibit "the removal of existing vegetation as a condition or requirement of any approval or funding of a project, or any other action, unless the specific vegetation has been demonstrated to present an unacceptable safety risk."

Stutzman's amendment was ruled in order Tuesday evening by the House Rules Committee, making it eligible for consideration when the entire House debates the water resources bill this week.

Stutzman's office said the Corps in 2010 instructed Fort Wayne to remove vegetation from 10 miles of earthen levees along the St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers. The Corps rated each of the city's three levee systems as "unacceptable" after inspections that year, according to the agency's online database of levees.

The Corps has been ordering that levees be cleared of woody vegetation more than two inches in diameter since Hurricane Katrina breached levees in New Orleans in 2005. The agency has said that tree roots and the holes of burrowing animals attracted to woody areas can weaken the flood barriers. It also has said the structures are easier to inspect and repair if they don't have trees and shrubs.

The Summit City removed many trees along levees in the 1990s as part of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Flood Control Project. In 2012, the city's Board of Public Works approved levee repairs along Edgewater Avenue that included the installation of plastic mesh that allows grass to grow but discourages the sprouting of trees.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act would provide for the conservation and development of waterways and authorize the Corps to study, plan and build infrastructure projects for rivers and harbors.

The Senate approved its version of the legislation by an 83-14 vote in May. Congress typically passes a water resources bill every two years.