Future of towering pines in question
WORTHINGTON -- Dozens of pine trees that line the east side of Whiskey Ditch in Worthington may need to be removed to keep the levee system in compliance with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
City of Worthington officials received a letter about a month ago from the Corps, stating the "maintenance condition of your levee system is considered unacceptable as defined by Public Law (PL) 84-99." As such, the letter explained the city's flood protection system is considered inactive in the Corps of Engineers Rehabilitation and Inspection Program and is no longer eligible for repair assistance.
Approximately 65 mature trees -- primarily Colorado blue spruce, with another half dozen younger white pine trees added near the softball fields within the last decade -- are planted within the levee system that stretches from Oxford Street to 10th Avenue.
Worthington Parks Superintendent Scott Rosenberg said most of the blue spruce trees, the tallest of which tower 35 feet high, were planted in the late 1960s.
The recent letter isn't the first notice the Corps has sent requesting removal of the trees. In fact, the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District received a letter from the Rock Island District of the Corps of Engineers, dated April 19, 1972, requesting the then-young trees be removed.
"These roots from trees could go into the levee system and endanger the project; remove before any damage has incurred," the report stated.
Neither OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl nor Worthington City Engineer Dwayne Haffield were in their current positions when the notice was sent 40 years ago, and according to Livdahl, he and Haffield have had several discussions about who is responsible for the trees that were planted in the levee.
"In official Corps records, the watershed still owns that project," said Livdahl, adding that from what he's been able to determine, the city took over maintenance of the property years ago.
In fact, he has OOWD board minutes from March 18, 1975, saying that a Corps of Engineers Tour pointed out "trees along ditch still must be removed by city."
The Corps completed Whiskey Ditch and the berm (levee) along its east side in 1955, according to Haffield. The Corps funded the project, but as part of its agreement, left the local authority to maintain the structure within certain Corps standards.
Part of a 'large net'
Haffield said recent annual inspections by the Corps of Engineers did not mention the need to remove the trees, or say they were in violation of the agreement with the Corps to maintain the flood control project.
"In the past few years, (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) ... has stepped up their inspection to make sure levee systems are maintained, especially since (Hurricane) Katrina," Haffield said earlier this week. "They're doing periodic inspections, and those are being done by third-party consultants."
In previous years, Haffield said "relatively local Corps people" conducted the inspections.
With what could be considered a tightening of the rules, Haffield said Worthington isn't the only city in the country with an out-of-compliance levee system.
"We're part of a large net," he said. "When the Corps comes in and spends federal money to construct these for communities, they want the city to maintain them according to standards they set. In the case of Worthington and plenty of others, that's just not been happening. The Corps is on a program to make sure these flood control systems are maintained properly."
Haffield said that while levee systems are primarily established for flood control, Whiskey Ditch has a different set of circumstances.
"Whiskey Ditch was widened and set up to relieve flows coming down County Ditch 12," he explained. "This is a diversion -- it rerouted Okabena Creek and County Ditch 12 into Lake Okabena.
"It's not the properties by the ditch that were protected (from flooding)," he added. "It's downstream, near McMillan (Avenue), Oslo (Street) and the high school area."
Haffield said the ultimate outcome may be that the levee is no longer a Corps project, but that has yet to be determined.
Trees deemed a threat
The more than 70 pine trees towering above the east side of Whiskey Ditch are deemed a threat to the integrity of the levee, explained Haffield, adding that vegetation is prohibited within a certain range of the levee, as well as in the channel.
"There is supposed to be mowed grass there that doesn't interfere with flow," he said. "With root structures of the trees, it could, in a wind storm, take a piece of the levee out. It also doesn't allow easy work around the trees to maintain the levee or do emergency control measures like sandbagging."
In recent years, Haffield said the parks department has done a lot to improve the looks of the trees along the channel, but they are peaking in terms of their aesthetic and wind-blocking benefits.
Rosenberg said the trees have not been tolerant to a couple of diseases. In an effort to slow disease that causes lower branches to die, crews began trimming branches 10 or 12 years ago.
"As the trees progressively looked worse or got thinner at the bottom, we got to the point that we eliminated most of the dead branches," Rosenberg said. "There are a number of trees that are along there -- the blue spruce -- that are in pretty poor shape. They're thinly needled and nearing the end of their life."
City's next move
Haffield said the pine trees weren't the only defect in the levee system to be highlighted in the Corps' recent assessment. Another issue the Corps says needs to be addressed is the gates in the ditch system on the north side of Oxford Street. Those gates were not part of the original Corps design for the system. Haffield said those may not have to be removed, if the city can update maps and defend updates made over the years.
The trees, on the other hand, may not be as easy to defend.
"It's probably difficult to show that trees will not interfere or undermine the integrity of the system," said Haffield, adding that the city has two years to develop an improvement strategy to bring the levee system into compliance.
At this point, the city is waiting for confirmation from the Corps to begin a System Wide Improvement Framework (SWIF), Haffield said.
"What we were expecting to do was to get into the SWIF process and then in the course of that, discuss what the impacts of those trees are and the alternatives," he added. "We really haven't proceeded with specific steps."
As for the Corps' decision to cut access to repair assistance on the levee, Haffield said the city council will need to decide what needs to be done next.
"The financial assistance offered by the Corps was to build (the levee) in the first place," he said, adding that while the city is tasked with maintaining it, the Corps will assist financially if the levee is damaged by flooding.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.