Panned out

Legislature passes bill to halt suction dredge gold mining

A plume of sediment spews out of gold-mining suction dredge on the Salmon River in Northern California.

A plume of sediment spews out of gold-mining suction dredge on the Salmon River in Northern California.

Photo courtesy of the Karuk tribe

In a move praised by American Indian tribes, recreational and commercial fishermen, and environmentalists, the California Senate voted 28-7 on July 13 to approve legislation by state Sen. Patricia Wiggins of Santa Rosa to temporarily ban motorized suction dredge mining for gold in California streams until the California Department of Fish and Game finishes its court-ordered overhaul of regulations governing this practice.

Wiggins and proponents of Senate Bill 670 say suction dredge mining pollutes rivers and is highly destructive to fish spawning grounds at a time when salmon and steelhead populations are in dramatic decline in California.

The mining method involves powerful machines on boats sucking up sediment from rivers or streams and spitting it out again in the search for gold. Suction dredging has substantially increased on the Klamath and Salmon rivers and the forks of the American, Feather, Yuba and other Sierra Nevada rivers with the rise in the gold price.

“While fishermen are being told to stop fishing, a recreational activity called ‘suction dredge mining’ is allowed to continue,” Wiggins said, referring to the second year of a ban on commercial and recreational salmon fishing off the California and southern Oregon coast. “S.B. 670 is about equity. We simply cannot ask an entire fishing industry to stop their work, while a small group of hobbyists are allowed to continue.”

DFG biologists and Dr. Peter Moyle, one of the nation’s leading fishery scientists, have stated under oath that dredging is deleterious to fish.

“Suction dredging represents a chronic unnatural disturbance of natural habitats that are already likely to be stressed by other factors and can therefore have a negative impact on fishes that use the reach being dredged,” said Moyle. “Suction dredging, through a combination of disturbance of resident fish, alteration of substrates, and indirect effects on heavy human use of small areas, especially thermal refugia (side creeks), will further contribute to the decline of the fishes.”

The bill is supported by a broad coalition including the Karuk tribe, California Coastkeeper Alliance, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Tribal Business Alliance, California Trout, Clean Water Action, Friends of the River, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Planning and Conservation League, Ramona Band of Cahuilla, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Sierra Club California and Sierra Fund.

Opponents include the New 49’ers, Siskiyou County, Regional Council of Rural Counties and state Sen. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley.

Aanestad said he was “extremely disappointed” about the passage of the bill, saying it could result in “closed businesses and lost jobs in the 4th Senate District.”

“Make no mistake about it,” said Aanestad. “This bill has nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with politics. This bill will cause economic hardship to the rural communities and the small-business owners who depend on this industry as a source of income.”

The New 49’ers, a mining advocacy group, claims that no scientific information points to suction dredging as a cause in the collapse of salmon, that the salmon collapse is due to ocean conditions and an over-reliance on hatchery fish, and that a moratorium would violate the private-property rights of those who have federal mining claims and create a “takings” liability on the part of the state.

“The scientific evidence against suction dredging doesn’t pass the laugh test,” said James Buchal, attorney for the New 49’ers. “This bill will put hundreds of people out of work and destroy the vacation plans of thousands of people for no purpose whatsoever.”

The measure next heads to the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his signature or veto. The Wiggins bill contains an urgency clause, meaning it would become law immediately should the governor sign it.

“We look forward to Gov. Schwarzenegger signing this bill into law soon,” said Robert Goodwin, self-governance coordinator for the Karuk tribe. “Our fisheries need immediate relief, and S.B. 670 is a big step in the right direction.”

Assemblyman Jared Huffman of San Rafael is the principal co-author of the bill. Other co-authors include Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis and Assembly members Noreen Evans of Santa Rosa and Dave Jones of Sacramento.