Western states struggle to reform recreational streambed mining

Recent bills to change suction dredging regulations faltered in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

 

Although the sun has long set on the heyday of the gold rush, you might not know it from the Pacific Northwest’s streams and rivers, where a new epidemic of gold fever has struck. Instead of miners with pans and shovels, divers with gas-powered suction dredges sweep the river bottoms and vacuum sediment through a sluice box—damaging watersheds and upsetting environmentalists in the process.

While suction dredging is a recreational activity carried out mostly by seasonal hobbyists, its devotees can score a handsome reward for their efforts—especially with gold fetching $1,200 per ounce. Some even rely on the payout as a key source of income.

“For a lot of people, it’s a way of life,” says Jim Hamilton of the American Mining Rights Association (AMRA), a California-based organization that advocates for suction dredging throughout the West. “That’s how they get through the winter.”

Suction dredging has fueled a fierce debate in recent years, with anglers and environmentalists blaming the practice for hampering water quality by kicking up sediment and mercury from the river bottom, threatening fish species and impacting downstream water users.

Suction dredgers work on the Scott River, a tributary of the Klamath River. Although states like California and Oregon currently have moratoriums banning the practice, river users say it still happens regularly.
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“Some of these rivers can be pretty busy (with dredgers) in the summertime,” says Forrest English, the program director for Rogue Riverkeeper, an organization aimed at protecting southern Oregon’s Rogue River watershed. “It’s kind of like having a dozen teenagers mowing your lawn.” English says that the practice harms sensitive species like salmon and lamprey, and cites studies from the U.S. Geological Survey and other entities that show suction dredging to mobilize mercury in water bodies. Disturbing and dispersing even small amounts of buried mercury can trigger unsafe levels of bioaccumulation in a watershed's food chain.

Dredgers refute those concerns, contending that their activity actually aids stream health by removing toxic materials and by loosening gravel that improves fish habitat for spawning, particularly during times of drought and low water levels. 

“If I wanna kill fish, I’m going to use a fishing pole,” says Hamilton. “We collect literally tons of lead and other stuff out of the rivers.” He points to studies by the California Division of Water Quality and other state agencies that found that dredging recovers 98 percent of mercury from waterways and adds that he and other suction dredgers pull detritus like abandoned televisions and computers out of streams as they go about their work.

Despite the competing arguments, in 2013, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found sufficient environmental concerns to indefinitely extend the state’s suction dredging moratorium enacted in 2009. The agency's study, said the legislature, was the “most comprehensive, technical review of suction dredge mining ever prepared” in the state.

The debate over suction dredging has spilled over into statehouses around the West on both sides of the divide. In the past month alone, bills aiming to either strengthen or limit existing dredging regulations have been introduced in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, although none have gotten traction so far.

In Idaho, Republican Rep. Paul Shepherd has tried to loosen suction dredging regulations for the past three years. Whereas past incarnations of a bill he introduced have sought to nullify the Environmental Protection Agency in Idaho and make other sweeping changes, this year’s rendition sought more targeted changes to state law. The measure would have essentially eliminated dredging regulations on more than 80,000 miles of streams and rivers and would have allowed for use of larger, 8-inch-diameter hoses, compared to the 5-inch limit currently in place. But amid opposition from both environmental groups and sportsmen’s organizations, the bill was unanimously rejected in committee.

Oregon, on the other hand, sought to maintain a moratorium on suction dredge mining until 2021 while requiring state agencies to develop a long-term dredging plan aimed at protecting sensitive fish habitat. The bill died in committee after its sponsor, Sen. Alan Bates, a Democrat from Medford, couldn’t attach enough amendments to gain bipartisan support.

Washington also looked to tighten oversight of suction dredging by requiring dredgers to obtain permits similar to fishing licenses. That measure, too, failed despite initial momentum, according to Derek Young, a professional fishing guide on Washington’s Yakima River and the president of Trout Unlimited’s Yakima Headwaters chapter. He says the dredging has been especially problematic in Washington, which he thinks could be bearing the brunt of dredging decisions made by other legislatures.

“In the last five years or so, California and Oregon have put a moratorium on these activities, and all of that activity is funneled into Washington,” Young says. The influx of local suction dredging threatens the healthy river system and fish populations upon which his livelihood—and the broader ecosystem—depends, he says.

In California, even though a moratorium on suction dredging remains in place, a pending decision from the state Supreme Court could have significant implications for the mining rights of suction dredgers. The case, People v. Rinehart, arose after an individual was cited for illegal suction dredging in 2012. It raises the question of whether the state ban is preempted by federal protection under the 1872 Mining Law—legislation nearly as old as the gold rush itself.

The lack of any legislative or judicial resolution means that, for now, the debate will continue to play out in the region’s waterways. Suction dredging critics say that even existing regulations are routinely flouted. Hobbyists now commonly hold “dredge-in” protests, often touting the 1872 law as justification.

“There’s a certain level of, ‘Look, we’re gonna taunt you and see what happens,’” says English, comparing the sentiments behind such protests to the Sugar Pine Mine and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoffs.

With those other Oregon conflicts in mind, English believes state-level dredging disputes have highlighted some similar arguments—and some ironies—concerning the relationship of state and federal regulations. “You’re getting a bunch of folks that would normally jump on the states’ rights bandwagon,” says English. “Today their claim is the state’s rights (aren’t relevant) because they want to revert to the federal government’s 1872 mining law.”

Those following the debate in the Pacific Northwest expect the issue to be revisited in future legislative sessions. In the meantime, streams will see more dredging activity—particularly if the price of gold is high. Jonathan Oppenheimer, a lobbyist at the Idaho Conservation League, says he is bracing for more dredge-ins.

“It seems like an annual event here in Idaho,” he says.

Bryce Gray is an editorial intern for High Country News. He tweets at @_BryceGray.

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