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
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • 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....
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...