Emergency Regulations Close Suction Dredge Mining “Loophole” In CA Law

Suction dredge mining was effectively banned in the state of California since 2009, but a few miners tried to exploit a “loophole” in the law, eliminating their suction dredge’s sluice box (part of the overly specific legal definition of a suction dredge) and mining anyway.

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife passed emergency rules which disallowed the use of any suction dredge mining equipment, protecting our waterways from toxic levels of mercury and habitat disruption.

Those rules just took affect, and CalTrout wants to commend Fish and Wildlife’s quick reaction to the resurgence in suction dredge mining. Below is a press release from several organizations involved in the fight to protect our rivers.


For Immediate Release, July 1, 2013

Craig Tucker, Karuk Tribe, (916) 207-8294
Jonathan Evans, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 318
Glen Spain, PCFFA, (541) 689-2000

Suction Dredge Mining Loophole Officially Closed

Many Recreational Miners Will Need to Pack up Mining Gear Immediately

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— On Friday, June 28th the Office of Administrative Law formally approved emergency rules proposed by California Department of Fish and Wildlife that close a so-called “loophole” in California’s suction dredge ban.

The proposed rules stemmed from an emergency request from a coalition of tribal, environmental and fisheries groups. California Department of Fish and Wildlife proposed the emergency rules on June 7, 2013 to crack down on an upsurge of unregulated suction dredge mining in the state. The environmentally harmful mining process has been banned in California since 2009, but since early this spring miners have been making equipment modifications to suction dredges to exploit what they perceived as a “loophole” in the ban.

“We are very pleased with California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s decision to act quickly. This decision ensures that California’s water quality, fisheries, and cultural sites will be protected from suction dredges and similar forms of mechanized recreational mining,” said Leaf Hillman, Director of Natural Resources for the Karuk Tribe.

Suction dredge mining uses machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold. California law currently prohibits “any vacuum or suction dredge equipment” from being used in California waterways. But because narrow state rules previously defined a suction dredge as a hose, motor and sluice box, miners are simply removing the sluice box — an alteration that leaves dredge spoils containing highly toxic mercury piling up along waterways. The sluice box is one of several methods to separate gold from dredge spoils. Under the new regulation, the use of any vacuum or suction dredge equipment (i.e., suction dredging) is defined as the use of a suction system to vacuum material from a river, stream or lake for the extraction of minerals. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 14, § 228, subd. (a).

“Suction dredge mining in any form pollutes our waterways with toxic mercury and destroys sensitive wildlife habitat,” said Jonathan Evans with the Center for Biological Diversity. “California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s decision will make our rivers safer for wildlife, fisheries and our families.”

Unregulated suction dredge mining harms important cultural resources and state water supplies. It also destroys sensitive habitat for important and imperiled wildlife, including salmon and steelhead trout, California red-legged frogs and sensitive migratory songbirds. The Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board urged a complete ban on suction dredge mining because of its significant impacts to water quality and wildlife from mercury pollution; the California Native American Heritage Commission has condemned suction dredge mining’s impacts on priceless tribal and archeological resources.

The coalition that submitted the formal rulemaking petition includes the Center for Biological Diversity, the Karuk tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Friends of the River, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Foothills Anglers Association, North Fork American River Alliance, Upper American River Foundation, Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, Environmental Law Foundation and Klamath Riverkeeper. The coalition is represented by Lynne Saxton of Saxton & Associates, a water-quality and toxics-enforcement law firm.


Suction dredge mining has a history of controversy. California courts have repeatedly confirmed that it violates state laws and poses threats to wildlife, and the state government has placed a moratorium on the destructive practice. Last year California Gov. Jerry Brown continued a moratorium initiated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on suction dredge mining until the state develops regulations that pay for the program and protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources. Regulations adopted by state wildlife officials earlier in 2012 failed to meet these legislative requirements.

In March 2013 a coalition including environmental organizations, fishermen and the Karuk tribe submitted a formal petition to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife asking the agency to close a loophole that allows recreational miners to return to suction dredging by making equipment modifications that sidestep state law and worsen impacts to the environment. When state wildlife officials denied the March request the coalition filed an emergency request on May 28, 2013 to close the loophole, which prompted the current regulatory reform.

The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies: It damages habitat for sensitive, threatened and endangered fish and frogs, and releases toxic mercury plumes left over from the Gold Rush into waterways.

Environmental analysis by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife identified several of the impacts:

  • Mobilizes and discharges toxic levels of mercury, harming drinking-water quality and potentially poisoning fish and wildlife
  • Harms fish, amphibians and songbirds by disrupting habitat
  • Causes substantial adverse changes statewide in American Indian cultural and historical resources

To watch video of recent illegal suction dredge mining click here.

The Karuk Tribe is the second largest federally recognized Indian Tribe in California. The Karuk have been in conflict with gold miners since 1850. Karuk territory is along the middle Klamath and Salmon Rivers.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is trade association of commercial fishermen on the west coast dedicated to assuring the rights of individual fishermen and fighting for the long-term survival of commercial fishing as a productive livelihood and way of life.

S. Craig Tucker, Ph.D.
Klamath Coordinator
Karuk Tribe



  1. Not so fast: Siskiyou County Superior Court Judge (Hon. Karen Dixon) issued a restraining order on 7/3/13 preventing Ca DF&G from enforcing the rules amendment: so its business as usual for the dredgers and death as usual for the river.

    • CalTrout Staff says:

      We’re trying to run this one down — maybe get a comment from someone in the know. Thanks for the head’s up.

      • I know because I was the only fisherman there and only by accident. The dredgers were out in force. Lopey himself showed to “keep the peace” (though he mostly shook hands and slapped backs).

        Siskiyou County Case #SC SC CV 13-00804.

        TRO issued 7/3/13 restrains Ca. DFW from enforcing new regulations pending OSC hearing on 7/30/13 @ 1:30 p.m.

  2. Thanks to San Bernardino County Superoir Court the ban is back.

    The Siskiyou Case was consolidated into a number of cases pending in San Bernardino. First rattle out of the box, on July 16, the San Bernardino judge reversed the injunction issued in Siskiyou prohibiting enforcement of the rules change.

  3. The misinformation about dredging is astounding.

    Dredging CLEANS the mercury from the river and provides BETTER spawning habitat for fish.

    Yes, there are an inconsiderate group of people who mine, but I fish, and have seen as many or MORE people fishing who overfish or trash the environment.

    There’s room for everyone out there.

    • CalTrout Staff says:

      Suction dredge mining “can” remove mercury from a river, but in the process a percentage of the mercury — typically a remnant of mining operations — becomes a highly toxic “floured” version of mercury that remains in the water column.

      The same study that showed this effect — and the same study that so many suction dredge miners point to as proof suction dredge mining is beneficial — concludes that suction dredge mining is not a good way to remove mercury from a watershed.

      In addition, habitat “improvement” via suction dredge mining isn’t documented, needed or desired. Running dredges without the sluice box and collecting the material in a bucket at river’s edge is manifestly not good for river habitat.

      We agree that there is room for everyone, but we also believe that science should drive these decisions, and the studies tells us there are impacts on habitat and water quality, especially in waters which are home to endangered fish.

      We look forward to the continuation of the process.


  1. […] For more information, you can read a press release at the CalTrout website. […]