California suction dredging moratorium extended

Photo courtesy of The New 49'ers.

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law an extension of the existing moratorium on suction dredge gold mining.

I confess that the appeal of recreational mining in any form escapes me, and that I don’t even like to vacuum my own living room. So it mystifies me to learn that there are people who like nothing better than running giant vacuum cleaners over the beds of rivers in their spare time, in the hope of catching a little gold. But it’s true, especially with the price of gold at over $1600 per ounce.

And it’s a problem for fish, especially salmon and steelhead, according to premier fish biologist Peter Moyle of UC Davis. According to Professor Moyle, suction dredging should be approached cautiously because, although its impacts are not well understood, it “represents a chronic unnatural disturbance of habitats supporting fish that are already likely to be stressed by other factors” (emphasis in original).

It may also be bad for people, because it remobilizes mercury pollution from 19th century gold mining.

Because it disturbs the state’s streambeds, suction dredging requires a permit from the Department of Fish and Game.  The Department is supposed to issue a permit only if it determines that the proposed dredging “will not be deleterious to fish.” Until forced to reconsider by litigation, though, the Department had been issuing permits routinely, with little consideration of their potential impacts.

Since July 2009, the Department has been prohibited by court order from issuing suction dredging permits until it complies with CEQA, California’s environmental review law. Since August 2009, DFG has also been statutorily prohibited from issuing permits, and mining under existing permits has been banned, pending completion of an Environmental Impact Report and adoption and implementation of new regulations. DFG has prepared a draft EIR. Because it is proposing regulations which would require that dredgers notify DFG of their location, level tailing piles, and avoid disturbing fish and redds (spawning nests), DFG contends that the effects of suction dredging won’t be significant.

Really? Without more than a listing of those regulations, I’m not persuaded that they will be effective. Even if dredgers do notify DFG of where they are mining, it seems unlikely that DFG will have the resources to adequately investigate those locations. It’s an awfully big state, and DFG is an awfully small agency. Nor does it seem obvious, especially considering the low risk of detection, that dredgers will take the time to level their tailing piles, or do that well even if they try. And finally, it seems highly unlikely to me that someone holding a 4-inch vacuum cleaner under water in the turbid conditions those dredges create will notice (even with the best of intentions) when they might be disturbing fish or redds.

The draft EIR does identify other significant or potentially significant environmental impacts, including mercury resuspension, increases in turbidity (which can themselves be bad for fish), effects on cultural resources, and effects on birds. But it deems all of those effects unavoidable because, it says, DFG has no authority to deal with them. That matters because CEQA (unlike NEPA) requires mitigation of adverse environmental impacts if possible.

The new law amounts to a legislative disapproval of DFG’s lukewarm efforts so far. It prohibits dredging until 2016 or until a final EIR is filed, new regulations are developed and implemented, and those regulations fully mitigate all significant impacts. Looks to me like DFG has just been sent back to the drawing board. And rightly so.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “California suction dredging moratorium extended”

  1. Another idiot who only references their “expert”. Lets go one step further. Lets stop all fishing. Fishing kills fish and fishermen walking on repairian habitat may damage it. Fishermen in boats may spill fuel or oil into the aquatic system. If a boat hits the bottom of a stream or river it may cause mercury to be released. Now lets talk about recreational swimming. These people lose beach balls, beer cans, etc.. while playing in the water. Children urinate and poop in these waters causing a potential health hazzard to others. These swimmer also tread all over repairian habitat and lay blankets of sensitive grasses. I guess it is time to shut all recreation down to protect our fish and streams.

  2. The rivers affected by dredger mining are held in public trust for the people of the state. Trust uses include fishing, swimming, picnicking and environmental preservation. Marks v Whitney, 6 Cal3d 251. Arguably they also include dredger mining. Boone v Kingsbury, 206 Cal 148. However priortization of trust uses is generally a legislative function, and the numerous declarations of the importance of the environment and aquatic and riparian resources would, it appears, take precedence over the dredger permit scheme. See California Trout, 207 Cal. App.3d 585.

    Fishery biologists have expressed concern over the effects of dredging; the dredgers’ principal champion, State Senator Ted Gaines, cites Ayn Rand in their support.

    On a more personal level, I found the South Yuba to be a summer paradise for swimming, fishing, picnicking until dredgers came and effectively precluded these activities by camping along the river filling the air with racket and stirring up the river bottom.

    Article 10 section 4 of the State Constitution safeguards public rights in California waters; Article I section 25 declares the right to fish. Mining does not enjoy this degree of recognition.

  3. these people are delusional the dredging helps the water we clean out the damage left
    behind by the 1800’s mining and the mercury it sticks to everything and amalgamates with the sand gold silver and other minerals I have had a lot of it sitting in my sluice box along with the gold so those of you dreaming up this stuff should do your homework first the dams built stopped a lot of the spawning of the fish one because the fish cant swim through concrete and the other being the silt that is trapped in the bottom of the river also the algae that is there because the river was stopped from flowing in a natural environment because of these government built dams why don’t you people study that instead of blaming the guy with the 4 inch hose that made a small hole in the river and moved a little bit of dirt when the government has affected millions of tons of it verses our few hundred pounds so stop the dreaming and get out and actually test this stuff!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Holly…

    I have to correct you on this issue that you have with suction dredges or what we like to call them, “Mineral Extraction Machines.”

    First and foremost, it doesn’t hurt fish habitats. If anything it is helping the fish because while we “vacuum,” as you say, we are cleaning up more mercury, lead, fishing line, and other debris from the waters. You can ask any person who operates a Mineral Extraction Machine about how much crap they find in the river and 10-1 they will tell you they usually pull more led than gold.

    Mineral extracting is more than just “vacuuming” a river bed. Besides, not all river beds are gold bearing and most of the time, we do more good than harm to the water environment. It is a difficult thing to explain to people who have no clue. I always say, don’t knock it until you try it!

    If you just make assumptions about something that you have no clue about and then report on it, that is one sided reporting. In this article here, not once did you mention something good about what these machines do for the waters. I assume it is because you don’t know what good it does. Did you know that each time we clean up the rivers, it creates new fish habitat and the new sediment that is brought up helps to feed fish.

    When you reported on this, you make it sound like earning cash and using natural resources to do so is a bad thing. Heaven forbid we live off the land! I mean how did the settlers ever do it? Environmentalists don’t want us in the water for the simple fact that they are paid by the government to lobby around its agencies (i.e. USFS, USFG, BLM…) and create havoc, all well knowing that we don’t hurt anything. We are just doing what we are free to do and what we like to do.

    Free? you ask? Yes, free to do it! What I mean is that all miners/prospectors are protected under the constitution. How? you ask? Yes, under the 1866 & 1872 mining laws, we prospectors are protected to do this. It doesn’t matter if we are panning, high-banking, sluicing or using our extraction machines, we are all prospectors/miners. What California is doing to it’s own economy with this moratorium is sickening. I mean really, is it that bad that we bring wealth out of the ground and put it into the economy? Oh that’s right, you believe we are destroying a little fishy’s habitat! That is the oldest line in the book. Everyone is trying to use that excuse to get us to stop extracting minerals and the underlying truth is that people are just ignorant to what we do.

    Here I will explain it to you this way, in as simple terms as I can. We dig for gold. Gold gets cashed into a local gold buyer. Miner now has cash in hand. The local gold buyer guy turns around and refines it and then sells it to people even higher up than him; he continues to run his business and all its costs. Miner who now has cash can put that money back into the Ca economy by paying bills, buying groceries, buying supplies, perhaps buy a home, make all of his/her payments on time… Support local businesses by buying more mining equipment. Do you see the ripple effect here? It isn’t all that bad and quite frankly, I see more good come out of what I do or what my friends do or even what any miner does.

    We are helping the economy; articles like this one and Gov. J. Brown are hurting the Ca economy and it is all because people aren’t educated on the constitutional mining laws. They are old, but they aren’t dead and once everyone starts realizing that, we will all be better off in the long run. After all, they are just targeting miners because we are a “small community of people.” Look what they did to the timber industry. These government agencies are ludicrous! They need to go!

    For everyone reading this, look at these video links. The proof is in the pudding that these agencies are just ruining the Western United States. And all of you anti-suction dredging people are helping them take your wealth away. California is the first to go, followed soon by more, but Idaho and Oregon have already begun their fight. They are taking their rights and their lands back! For heavens sake, you all should be helping to do the same and give back the constitutional rights to the people who actually want to exercise them!

    Take a look at these: They make sense. Rock on and keep mining people!

    Thanks for your time!

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About Holly

Holly Doremus is the James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd Professor of Environmental Regulation at UC Berkeley. Doremus brings a strong background in life sciences and a comm…

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About Holly

Holly Doremus is the James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd Professor of Environmental Regulation at UC Berkeley. Doremus brings a strong background in life sciences and a comm…

READ more