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Legislators Seek Savings by Cutting Suction Dredge Mining Program

by Dan Bacher

Budget sub-committees in both houses of the California legislature this week approved identical budget cuts that could effectively end what Indian Tribes, environmentalists and recreational fishermen describe as the "environmentally destructive" practice of suction dredge mining once and for all.

"The effort would save California tax payers nearly $2 million a year and aid the recovery of imperiled fisheries throughout the state," according to a news release from the Karuk Tribe.

“California is in the midst of an historic financial crisis," said Leaf Hillman, Director of the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources. "Taxpayers can no longer afford to subsidize this environmentally destructive hobby."

Hillman said the move by the budget committees still has to be approved as part of the overall state budget, but reversing the proposal would require lawmakers to fight for budget increases to fund a dredge mining permit and enforcement program while they are at the same time faced with deep cuts to education, healthcare for the elderly, and law enforcement.

According to the Department of Fish and Game’s own Environmental Impact Report, the dredging program raises $373,000 a year in permit fees, but under the newly proposed regulations would spend over $1.8 million in administration and enforcement. This fails to include the cost of defending the program from lawsuits filed by Tribes, taxpayers, and fishermen, according to the Tribe.

Although the Department’s draft Environmental Impact Report found that dredging has “significant and unavoidable” impacts to water quality due to the reintroduction of mercury to the food chain, the Department claimed it had no authority to regulate the practice on those grounds. The Karuk Tribe along with a host of fishing, environmental, and Tribal groups argue that the Department’s proposed regulations would fail to protect struggling runs of salmon, steelhead, and numerous other fish species while violating clean water laws.

“The legislature saw the flaws in the Department’s proposed mining regulations and acted to defund the program rather than continue to waste taxpayer money,” added Hillman.

Hillman said there is a double moratorium on dredge mining that stems from legislation passed in 2009 (SB 670 – Wiggins) as well as a 2009 court ordered moratorium resulting from a lawsuit filed by taxpayers. These moratoriums remain in place until new regulations are approved and implemented. However, these budget cuts would prevent the Department from developing these regulations and thus prolonging the moratorium indefinitely

"When the state of California is laying off teachers, fireman and police, we can't afford to subsidize hobby mining," summed up Craig Tucker, Klamath Coordinator for the Karuk Tribe. "We're adamantly opposed to socialized dredge mining."

Suction dredges are powered by gas or diesel engines that are mounted on floating pontoons in the river, according to Tucker. Attached to the engine is a powerful vacuum hose which the dredger uses to suction up the gravel and sand (sediment) from the bottom of the river. The material passes through a sluice box where heavier gold particles can settle into a series of riffles.

"The rest of the gravel is simply dumped back into the river," said Tucker. "Not only does this destroy fish habitat, it often reintroduces mercury left over from historic mining operations to the food chain, threatening communities downstream and getting into the human food chain. Depending on size, location and density of these machines they can turn a clear running mountain stream into a murky watercourse unfit for swimming."

Miners blast Legislature budget cuts

Suction dredge miners reacted vociferously to news of the approval of identical budget cuts for the suction dredge mining program, claiming that the program wasn't "environmentally destructive," as suction dredge ban proponents contend.

"I worked as a seasonal aide for Fish and Game, then 35 years for State Forestry/ CDF retiring as a Fire Captain," said Herb, a suction dredge miner and recreational angler. "I was also in the military for a short stint." He criticized both recreational anglers and Tribal fishermen for "killing fish" in the state's rivers.

"Environmentally destructive?" he asked. "Dredging loosens impacted gravel to help spawning. Dredging is not allowed during spawning months. Dredges collects all the lead and lures we fishermen leave in the river. They collect iron, any mercury present which isn't much. I have seen dead trout floating downstream with a hook and broken line, the one that got away, that my brother fisherman killed."

"Dredging does not harm fish," he added. "Hell, you know as well as I that they are spooked and don't get near a dredge. We don't kill salmon either because the major rivers (Yuba, Feather and American) are blocked by dams. There are no salmon where I dredge."

Finally, Herb claimed, "Mother Nature each winter storm stirs up more silt and material than 1,000 dredges will do in 100 years."

UARF Board Member concerned about existing laws not being enforced

On the other hand, Bill Templin, a Board Member of the Upper American River Foundation (UARF) and avid recreational fisherman, said that a report from the State Water Resources Control Board and letters to the Board "provide very strong evidence regarding the adverse impacts of suction dredge mining on people and the environment, as do the results of two recent surveys of fish consumers."

The two surveys cited were:
(1) Shilling and others (2010) and
(2) Monohan (2010)

"As a Board Member of the Upper American River Foundation, I think that it would be a very good thing for fisheries (and fish consumers) if the 2 proposed budget cut suggestions were effective in reducing suction dredge mining operations," said Templin.

Templin also said he is curious how effective the current "double moratorium" on dredge mining has been in curtailing suction dredging in California.

"I’m very concerned about lack of enforcement of dredge mining prohibitions knowing the lack of funding for Game Wardens," he emphasized, "as well as the local county law enforcement agency’s attitudes towards enforcing laws that are already on the books related to water quality degradation and access to local rivers according to the Public Trust Doctrine related to access within the mean high water mark," he stated.

"I am hopeful that the defunding proposals effectively reduce the impacts of suction dredge mining on people and the environment. However, I am skeptical that these results may actually occur and I am concerned that the existing laws will not be effectively enforced, unless additional funding is directed to the DFG Wardens," Templin concluded.

The final public hearing to receive comments on the Draft SEIR for the Department of Fish and Game's suction dredge permitting program was held on the last day of the public comment period, Tuesday, May 10, in Sacramento. Information on the DFG's suction dredge program is available at: