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Michael Grayum
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
06-25-2012

Collaboration, rather than litigation, defines path forward for protecting Puget Sound

TACOMA—Speaking with one voice, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Puget Sound Partnership released a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will affect the management of levees and riverbanks along hundreds of miles of rivers around Puget Sound. The MOU establishes a collaborative regional framework to ensure the best performance of levee systems throughout Puget Sound to protect public safety, private property and salmon, as well as other native fish at the same time.

“This agreement is a significant milestone for our region, providing a way toward continued collaboration and solutions that protect public safety, economic infrastructure, and our natural resources,” said Gerry O’Keefe, Executive Director of the Puget Sound Partnership. “The MOU tells the story of how the Northwest has come together in partnership and determination to move forward to revolve the seemingly conflicting objectives of managing vegetation on levees and protecting native fish species.”

The MOU relates to a Corps program that provides funding to levee owners for levee repairs provided they maintain their levees according to the Corps’ standards. In 2010 and in early 2012, the Corps proposed revisions to its levee vegetation variance procedures that changed the requirements for levee owners if they want to seek flexibility from the standards. Flexibility could allow levee owners to grow vegetation that would improve the quality of riparian habitat and help fish while maintaining eligibility for Corps funding.

“We are serious about the need to protect public safety by minimizing and managing flood risk - that really is the motivation behind these proposed revisions. We also recognize there are important environmental and community contexts to the question of how those risks are actually managed on the ground,” said Col. Robert A. Tipton, Northwestern Division Commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

These policies affect almost three hundred miles of riparian and floodplain habitat in the Puget Sound basin, across the largest watersheds draining from the Cascades and Olympics, which are home to dozens of populations of Chinook, Coho and Chum salmon, Steelhead, and Bull Trout. All are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Among the effects of the proposed changes would be the end of a regional allowance for levee owners in Washington, Idaho, and Montana to grow vegetation for habitat benefits that the nationwide standards would not allow. Instead, individual levee owners would have to apply, fund, and seek approval for such flexibility on their own.

“The salmon recovery plan for Puget Sound identifies degraded riverbank and floodplain habitat as a factor limiting the health and recovery of our listed salmon populations. Further loss of this habitat would make the problem worse and really send us in the wrong direction,” said Will Stelle, Regional Administrator for the Northwest Region of NOAA’s Fisheries Service.

Over the last two years, levee owners, federal and state agencies, tribes, local governments, and private organizations have given the Corps feedback on its proposals. The feedback from Puget Sound, the Pacific Northwest, and the West Coast on the proposed revisions has been consistent: the proposed revisions would significantly hinder the ability of levee owners to manage levees to meet the objectives of safety, improved habitat for recovering native fish runs, and cost-effective program implementation in a future of very lean budgets.

“Managing flood risk is very important to our communities in Puget Sound. But we have native fish recovery and ecosystem recovery goals to reach as well. We believe this region is creative enough to find and take actions that are supportive of native fish recovery, levee safety, and flood-risk reduction, all at the same time” said Ken Berg, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Washington Fish and Wildlife Office in Lacey, Washington.

The MOU will strike a balance between levee management standards that can lead to the permanent removal of vegetation from riparian habitat areas and native fish recovery plans that call for increasing the quality and quantity of that same vegetation and habitat. Being in this position has lead to significant mitigation costs for levee owners who have cut trees to meet Corps standards that then exposed them to legal risks related to compliance with laws like the ESA and Clean Water Act.

In King County, approximately thirty miles of the Green River would be affected by the proposed policy revisions. A recent study showed a reduction in levee vegetation that meets the national standard requirements would raise water temperatures in the Green River to levels lethal to salmon and bull trout.

"This is an important step forward, and I appreciate the effort of the Partnership, the Corps and local and federal agencies to identify our shared interests," said King County Executive Dow Constantine. "We can use both levees and vegetation where appropriate to prevent flooding and protect our vulnerable salmon."

“The parties to this MOU have worked hard to set forth on a path to resolve the long-standing conflict about how levees can be managed to meet several critical objectives,” said O’Keefe. “A lot of work remains to meet the intended outcomes of this agreement. However, we are cautiously optimistic we are all moving forward together in the right direction.”

Memorandum of Understanding: http://1.usa.gov/MdVdpA

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The Puget Sound Partnership coordinates the regional effort to cleanup Puget Sound. The Partnership is the backbone organization connecting citizens, governments, tribes, scientists and businesses together to set priorities, implement a regional recovery plan, and ensure accountability for results. The Partnership was created in 2007 with strong bipartisan support to coordinate the regional effort to clean up Puget Sound.

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