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California Fish and Game struggles to rewrite rules for dredge gold mining

Carlos Alcala
Sacramento Bee
04/24/2011

It's gold vs. golden trout.

And gold vs. coho salmon. And gold vs. Shasta crayfish.

The California Department of Fish and Game is wrestling – under court order – with a new set of rules to control suction dredge mining in the state's rivers and streams.

Officials must take into account the health of aquatic species and aim to approve new rules by November.

It's a tough task.

Dredge miners – several thousand individuals and hobby clubs – are angry about a moratorium in effect since 2009, and anxious to get back in the rivers now that gold is hitting $1,500 an ounce.

Many of the most popular areas are in the Mother Lode outside Sacramento. A survey of California miners listed Placer, El Dorado and Sierra as three of the top five counties for dredging visits.

Environmental and fishing groups, however, worry that too many miners will be on too many rivers with too little supervision, endangering the species that Fish and Game is charged with protecting.

Some think it's possible to have environmentally responsible dredge mining, while others want to eliminate it.

"Hobby mining that destroys our wildlife and waterways should be left in the dustbin of history," said Jonathan Evans, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco.

California's history, of course, is wrapped up in gold.

And there's some left.

"There's plenty of gold," said Michael Dunn, who opened Gold Pan California in Concord to make and sell mining equipment in 2008.

It's not unusual for an experienced dredge miner to pick up $300 worth of gold – just 6.2 grams – in a weekend, Dunn said.

Except that no mining is now going on in California. It stopped in 2009, when the Legislature passed a moratorium on dredging.

Fish and Game was already forced to stop issuing permits under a court order in a lawsuit brought by a Klamath River tribe.

The Karuk tribe said that 1994 Fish and Game regulations were not adequately protecting the coho salmon and other species in the Klamath, Scott and Salmon river watershed.

The court said no dredging permits could be issued until Fish and Game did an adequate environmental study on the effects of dredge mining.

A draft EIR came out in February and can be read online at www.dfg.ca.gov/suctiondredge. It lays out where and when dredge mining can be done, with what equipment, and which species are considered at risk in which streams.

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 wet suit 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.

That activity is what generates the conflict.

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.

Nutting supported a bill by state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, that would have ended the moratorium. The bill died in committee this month.

There is no evidence that dredging hurts fish, Nutting said, even suggesting that dredge miners leave streams in better shape than they were before.

Although there is little in the way of direct studies of the effects of dredging on aquatic life, Fish and Game analysts looked at studies on how dredging disturbs sediments and linked that with knowledge of fish biology to draw conclusions about limiting dredging.

"It should be assumed dredging is harming fish that are in decline unless it is proven otherwise," UC Davis biologist Peter Moyle wrote in a declaration that was part of the Karuk suit.

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