Sucking up gold

 

Gold has hit $1500 an ounce -- and that's got would-be miners casting a covetous eye at Western streams and rivers. The Gold Rush may have ended more than a century ago, but there's still gold to be gleaned, if you've got a pickup, a wetsuit or waders, and a suction dredge  (see our 2006 story on hobby gold mining).

suction dredge

Suction dredge equipment in a stream.

Now California is trying to come up with rules to protect aquatic life while still allowing hobby miners to pan for gold. The Golden State has banned that activity since 2009, after the Karuk Tribe filed a lawsuit claiming that suction mining was harming coho salmon and other species. The Sacramento Bee reports:

Dredge mining, as a rule, includes a floating mechanism with an attached tube that functions something like a vacuum cleaner.

A miner, often in a wetsuit underwater, feeds the tube with stream-bottom gravels, which are sucked up and run through a sluice that separates out heavier material – gold, if the miner is fortunate.  ...

Environmentalists and fishing groups are concerned about what disturbing streambeds does to fish – especially in sensitive spawning seasons or in prime spawning areas.

Mining advocates are skeptical."Who kills fish? Fishermen," said Ray Nutting, a fisherman himself and supervisor in El Dorado County, one of the most popular counties for California dredge miners.

Suction dredging also can dislodge heavy metals, such as mercury, from streambeds. Hobby miners claim they're doing rivers a service by processing gravel and removing mercury particles;  the U.S. Geological Survey says the disturbance actually stirs up fine particles of mercury which then get converted into highly toxic methylmercury and enter the food chain.

In August, Oregon toughened its permitting for hobby miners, but the state still basically relies on self-enforcement. Suction dredging has been a particular problem on the Chetco River -- Congress is now considering a bill that would designate more of the river as better protect parts of the river designated as Wild and Scenic, prevent new suction-dredge mining claims and increase scrutiny of existing claims. California's final dredging rules are expected this fall.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Membership Director Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Classification: Full-time exempt Location: Boise, ID Job Overview Winter Wildlands Alliance is seeking a...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors LOCATION: Ashland, OR POSTING CLOSES: March...
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    ABOUT US: "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes." - Billings Gazette At Northern Plains, we believe that true...
  • ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN THE OUTDOOR PROGRAM
    To view the complete position description please visit: http://employment.stlawu.edu. St. Lawrence University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
  • TRAIL CREW & ASSISTANT TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL WORK LEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.