An incompetent Corps of Engineers and an inflexible FEMA are about to destroy a Coeur d’Alene treasure unnecessarily. The out-of-town and out-of-control federal agencies are blindly calling for the City of Coeur d’Alene to remove hundreds of mature trees from the dike that follows the lake and riverfront around City Park and North Idaho College. (News coverage here, here, here, and here.)
Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s, the dike runs just less than a mile and it purports to protect NIC and the Fort Grounds area from 100-year flood events. The main significance, however, is that the dike protects NIC and the Fort Grounds from unreasonable flood insurance premiums.
Nationwide, FEMA administers the flood insurance program for properties in potential flood zones. Very high premiums for very limited coverage are available to properties built in an area at high risk for floods. However, areas protected by a dike certified by the Corps of Engineers are not considered high-risk. If not certified by the Corps of Engineers, FEMA won’t consider the dike as sufficient flood protection. Burned by the experience in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina, both the Corps and FEMA are taking a much harder look at dike certifications around the country.
In a recent inspection, the hammer fell on Coeur d’Alene. A third-party inspection team found some 137 deficiencies in the flood protection system. Many of the deficiencies are minor, and many are legitimate, but the tree-removal issue is the most significant. According to the directive from the Corps of Engineers, all trees on the dike – along the road and to the base of both sides of the dike – will need to be removed. All the roots from the trees will need to be removed. And the dike will then need to be reconstructed to patch the tree-removal.
At a briefing to the City’s Public Works Committee, Coeur d’Alene engineer Gordon Dobler asked for approval of a mitigation plan to address the deficiencies. The full City Council will need to approve the plan at their next meeting. The cost to implement the plan is not entirely clear.
We hope the city pushes back. KEA would be the first to defend a federal environmental agency decision when it is based in clear law and regulation, sound science, and with the public health and safety a foremost priority. This, however, is not the case in this Corps of Engineers decision.
The Corps actually acknowledges that there is no scientific basis for their restriction of vegetation in flood control levees. The Corps’ regulatory authority doesn’t come from law or regulation, but rather an “Engineering Technical Letter” disconnected from what the regulations (pdf) actually require. And the local impacts could be significant. For one thing, the dike is likely to contain toxic materials from mine wastes which would have thoroughly contaminated the shoreline when the dike was constructed in the 1940s. Tearing up the dike could make a real mess. And who knows how much it’ll cost.
The last major flood event that would have seriously implicated the dike was in 1933, before the dike was built. More recent floods – like in 1997, 2008, and this past year – have not come close to inundating the dike. Certainly, flood control lessons learned in Minot, North Dakota this year should not be lost on anyone, but a more realistic assessment of risks and costs might argue in favor of keeping the trees. Or coming up with a different approach.
In any event, we hope the City Council will shelve the tree-removal decision until more can be known and options can be studied. The trees provide real value to the park and the community every day. Removing them to accommodate out-of-town federal agencies acting only on fear and a hunch and remote probabilities would be a shame.
UPDATE: Here’s the online version. Link to it, email it, post it to your facebook friends!
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