The underwater gold rush

 

The right to dredge part of Idaho’s Salmon River for garnets and gold now belongs exclusively to one man.

That was the decision of the Idaho Land Board last week when it granted Mike Conklin a mineral lease for a half-a-mile stretch of the river below Riggins, a small town near the western border of the state. Conklin plans to scour the riverbed for treasures using a process called suction dredging, a controversial mining practice that has been banned in California because of its negative impacts to water quality and fish habitat.

Conklin isn’t the only prospector in Idaho sucking up a riverbed in pursuit of gold—permits to suction dredge are $10 and the state's department of water resources has issued 700 permits this year. Conklin is, however, the first dredger to lease the mineral rights to a section of river, giving him exclusive access to mine that area. Unlike a permit (which can be purchased much like a fishing license), a mineral lease requires approval by the Idaho Land Board, so Conklin’s request thrust suction dredging into the public eye.

Suction dredging is gaining in popularity as the price of gold has leapt upwards of $1,700 per ounce. Here’s how it works: a powerful under-water vacuum is mounted on a raft, and a scuba diver swims along the bottom of a river with a hose, sucking sediment and gravel into the vacuum. The vacuum separates gold, which is heavier than gravel and other metals, and spits the other materials back into the stream. Suction dredges are popular because they work in deeper rivers and suck up a large volume of the streambed, recovering gold that in the past would have been difficult to find.

Few miners expect large profits from the practice, but enthusiasts say it’s a fun way to spend a weekend in the outdoors and make enough money to pay for gas. Some proponents say the practice actually improves water quality by removing mercury and lead from fishing weights from the streambed.

But many environmentalists disagree with that claim and say the dredges release buried mercury into the water and increase turbidity, coating salmon eggs in silt or inadvertently sucking them up (see “Hobby miners flock to public streams,” HCN 5/1/06). The negative effects of suction dredging on fish are well-documented in peer-reviewed research, and contributed to California’s decision in 2009 to put a moratorium on the process (see “Sucking up gold,” HCN 4/27/11). A rider on this year’s budget extended that moratorium indefinitely, unless the state finds a way to address suction dredging’s environmental impacts.

Just over the border in Oregon, however, suction dredging is allowed as long as miners get a permit and keep a record of their activity. There are restrictions on how much silt miners can churn up, but little enforcement of those rules.

Technically, all suction dredging without a discharge permit is illegal, but the EPA doesn’t enforce the law—yet. The agency is developing a general permit for suction dredge mining in Idaho that it hopes to roll out at the end of this year. Tracy DeGering, an environmental scientist with the EPA, told Earthfix that it’s likely a majority of Idaho Rivers would be closed to mining once the agency issues a general permit.

In the mean time, suction dredge mining continues in Idaho’s rivers and streams, much to the chagrin of Jonathan Oppenheimer, a senior conservation associate with Idaho Conservation League.

“As of right now, there’s no monitoring, no enforcement, there’s rampant violations of state laws (and) federal laws,” he said. “It is the Wild West when it comes to recreational suction dredge mining in Idaho’s rivers and streams.”

Emily Guerin is an intern at High Country News.

Photo of suction dredge on California's Klamath River courtesy Klamath Riverkeeper

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -