Dredging: not quite dead

Dredging in Sierra County: not dead yet 061211


The Western Mining Alliance (http://www.thewma.org/) reports that trailer bill AB129 that would result in a 5 year moratorium on CA Department of Fish and Game dredging permits has passed the senate by only 2 votes.   The WMA reports that the bill must still clear the Assembly and the Governor’s office.


The attack on dredging began when “environmental groups”, salmon groups, and the Karuk Tribe sued, requiring a new Environmental Impact Report on issuing suction dredge permits. The Karuk and the salmon have suffered greatly with in introduction of logging, farming and mining along the Klamath River.  The tribe is described as using the tools they have to improve the salmon they once depended on.  Originally, the ban was intended for the Klamath River only.  However, law doesn’t work that way, under the law, one size does fit all.  Subsequently, a judge forced a halt to dredge permit issuance when it was determined that the DFG was taking too long to do a new study.  SB 670 (Wiggins) was a legislative ban on dredging until the studies could be done.  While hydrological mining, shooting large streams of water at hillsides to bring the gold bearing gravels to the sluices where it could be separated, was stopped in Sierra streams in 1884, such mining techniques continued into the 1950s in the Klamath Basin.   This type of mining washes unbelievable amounts of gravel into rivers and streams. 


Typical small dredge miners use a gas engine and pump to siphon water, gravel and sand up on to a small raft where it sifts through a sluice.  If gravel is sucked, there is not much of a trail behind the dredge.  On the Klamath, the clay soils tend to make long downstream plumes of silt and debris. 


The DFG has been attempting to resolve the issue, and produced a draft proposal which has made many dredgers fighting mad, but even that miserable compromise has been denied as AB 129 would prevent the DFG from issuing dredge permits because it was imagined the program was not self-sustaining.


In fact, as then Attorney General Jerry Brown noted, the dredge permit program was mostly or completely paying for itself.  It is estimated that gold dredging brings in between $20 and $70 million dollars a year.  At this writing, gold is fetching $1528 an ounce.  Live Gold Prices are HERE  (There is always a link on the front page of the Prospect.


For those unfamiliar, gold is heavy and accumulates in the bottoms of flowing rivers and streams.  Most of the rivers which produce gold now have a history of gold mining.  Small gold is easiest to pick up using mercury.  While no longer used, there is a great deal of mercury and other metals resident in the rivers of California.  Inorganic mercury is “consumed” by anaerobic bacteria and converted to methylmurcury, an environmental poison.  It is felt by some that dredging liberates that mercury and makes it more available to animals higher on the food chain.  Because methylated mercury accumulates in the food chain, it eventually ends up in fish and, eventually, humans.


No one knows if this actually happens in California rivers; in other waters which are more highly polluted human populations are significantly affected.  It is known that fish gather downstream of suction dredges, eager to scarf up organic material and insects liberated from the gravel pulled up by the dredge.  If there were accumulators of methylated mercury, the fish would certainly pick it up.  The DFG’s $1.5 million dollar review of dredging should have answered that question.  That study is now moot. 


Elemental mercury or “quicksilver” is still readily available beneath the gravel in the Yuba.  Local miners talk of finding mercury in their riffles; because miners can be fined for having mercury (its use in placer mining is forbidden now) they have little choice but to return it to the stream.  It is estimated that 10 million pounds of mercury is still in the rivers and streams of the Sierra.


It is still legal to pan for gold in the stream, but that is very inefficient and likely won’t provide a living.  It is still possible to highbank by running water from the stream to search for placer gold out of the water course, but there are still limitations.  The works have to be located 300 feet or more from the stream, and if significant changes are made to the watershed a DFG 1602 permit is required.  Only water, no silt or solids may return to the stream.  It is this later precaution which prevents highbanking from become damaging to the stream, as its larger scale cousins were in the past.  To prevent bullet holes from appearing in your torso, make sure you have the right to prospect; a claim, permission from a claimant, and so on.


If you care about dredging, and want to see miners working on the rivers of the Sierra again, contact your assemblyman or the governor’s office.  Time is running out.



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