Levee project could remove hundreds of trees along the American River, Sacramento group warns

A community group is worried a project to strengthen levees in Sacramento will lead to the removal of several hundred trees along the American River Parkway, creating long-lasting environmental effects while damaging a popular regional recreation area.

The community group, American River Trees, is specifically concerned about a portion of the levee upgrade project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers known as the “Contract 3B site,” where erosion protection measures will be constructed upstream of Howe Avenue along the river to Watt Avenue.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans for construction to take place in 2025 and 2026 for the Contract 3B North and South project. Project officials said the upgrades are needed to “armor the riverbank to reduce and prevent erosion which, if left unaddressed, could result in levee failure.”

William Avery, a Sacramento State biology professor emeritus and a member of American River Trees group, said project officials should have done a more appropriate analysis on environmental impacts. He said there should have been more public involvement in the design process to create a less destructive approach.

Avery said the project plans call for the removal of about 500 trees south of the river and about 200 trees on the north side, which will result in the elimination of a riparian habitat while leaving behind a barren surface reminiscent of a “lunar landscape” that will remain that way for years.

“Huge heritage oaks, they will not be coming back in our lifetime,” Avery said about the tree removal. “What’s it going to be like to walk through there without any trees?”

The community group has launched an online letter-writing campaign to stop the removal of these trees along the American River Parkway. The group’s website also has a video explaining its stance on American River project.

The public has until Friday to submit comments online about the levee upgrade project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held two virtual public meetings last month to make presentations about the levee upgrade project.

Unclear how many trees will be removed

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said most of the vegetation affected by the construction is located on lands owned by Sacramento and Sacramento County, and project officials are working with the city and the county including Sacramento County Regional Parks on the necessary vegetation removal necessary to accommodate the project. Each site will be revegetated with appropriate native species and additional off-site plantings within the parkway.

“Unfortunately, our work will require the removal of a substantial number of trees – the exact number of which we do not yet have, and are still working to reduce. We are also working to preserve high value trees such as heritage oaks,” according to a written statement sent by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to The Sacramento Bee.

“We do not take lightly the removal of trees, and always work to ensure that we are taking only vegetation that would prevent us from safely building the project.”

The project’s webpage provides information about the American River levee upgrades, including lengthy reports on the environmental assessment, monthly updates on the project and answers to frequently asked questions.

A diagram from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows surveyed trees upstream of the “Contract 3B” portion of a levee improvement project on the American River. The corps says not all trees would be removed.
A diagram from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows surveyed trees upstream of the “Contract 3B” portion of a levee improvement project on the American River. The corps says not all trees would be removed.

Trees and shrubs within the project’s footprint will need to be removed before construction of the bank protection measure begins. Vegetation removal typically occurs between Oct. 1 and April 30, before bird nesting season.

The Contract 3B portion has been through three design phases. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said each design phase was intended to reduce specific impacts such as in-water impacts (fish), riparian vs. upland impacts, aesthetic and recreational impacts, meaning the total number of trees and heritage oaks.

Sacramento high risk for river flooding

The American River drains more than 2,100 square miles of watershed down through a flood control system that protects over 530,000 people and 83,000 structures from severe flood risk — and Sacramento is considered the most at-risk city for river flooding in the country, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

That flood control system has been undergoing numerous improvements, including work on Folsom Dam and the leveed sections of the lower American River and Sacramento River.

“The flood control system is only as good as its weakest link, and presently, we need to take care of the remaining weak link in the levee system which is the risk of erosion,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in its statement.

“Through considerable analysis and planning efforts, USACE has reduced the original 11 miles of American River erosion work originally proposed in 2016 to about six miles resulting in a vast reduction in impact to existing vegetation. And Contract 3B only impacts about three miles.”

Design engineers developed and planned erosion protection measures to be as effective as possible while causing the least amount of impact to the existing environment, and only vegetation directly affected by construction is removed, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Erosion protection work typically involves placing rock along the riverbank, covering it with soil to establish planting benches and revegetating the bank. Those features cannot be properly installed around existing vegetation located in the project’s footprint.

Construction planned for two years

Avery, who canoes and paddle boards on the river, said nearby residents won’t have access to that portion of the American River Parkway for two years during construction as trucks carrying materials move in and out of the area.

“That entire area may be blocked by a chained-link fence,” said Avery, who lives near the proposed project site and walks his dog along the river twice a day. “You won’t be able to go in there at all.”

He said the project’s damaging effects to area also will impact parkway visitors who are searching for activities for their families to come in contact with nature “without having to spend money.”

Pete Spaulding, another member of the community group, calls the American River Parkway an affordable “getaway” for visitors, and a regional natural asset that should be protected.

Spaulding, who has lived near the river for nearly 30 years, said the group’s campaign should not be perceived as a “not in my backyard” effort.

“Nobody wants flood control more than I do,” Spaulding said. “But they don’t have to do it with taking out all the vegetation.”

He said removing so many trees will “change the American River Parkway for generations to come.” Spaulding uses the parkway frequently. Years ago, he would train for marathons on the parkway, using the huge trees to protect him from the harsh sunlight in the summer and provide breaks from rain and wind in the winter.

“For me, it’s kind of like my backyard,” Spaulding said. “It’s personal for me; I’m protective of it.”

Public comments about the levee project will be accepted through Friday by sending an email to or