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


Suction Dredge Mining Resuming In California Despite Moratorium Forbidding It?

Suction dredge mining is currently banned in California, but some suggest miners are sidestepping the law by excluding a key piece of equipment and suction dredging anyway.

By removing the “sluice box” from the suction dredge, miners avoid the technical definition of a suction dredge, but also spew far more toxic mercury into the waterways.

This from a Center For Biological Diversity press release:

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— A coalition including environmental organizations, fishermen and the Karuk tribe submitted a formal petition to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife today asking the agency to close a loophole it created allowing recreational miners to return to a technique called suction dredging by making equipment modifications that sidestep state law and worsen impacts to the environment. Because state wildlife officials narrowed state rules to define 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.

“Suction dredge mining continues to pollute our waterways with toxic mercury and destroy sensitive wildlife habitat,” said Jonathan Evans with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Backroom approvals of uncontrolled suction dredge mining violate the public trust right along with the law.”

For more information, read this.

Circuit Court Decision Says ESA Trumps 1872 Mining Act

In what will probably be viewed as a landmark decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that suction dredge mining permits can’t be issued in sensitive areas without an Endangered Species Act (ESA) review.

In simple terms, the ESA trumps the 1872 Mining Act.

The ruling comes as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Karuk Tribe, who sought to protect endangered coho salmon from suction dredge mining.

The Los Angeles Times story says:

Recreational gold mining using suction dredges along Northern California’s Klamath River must be reviewed by federal wildlife officials if threatened coho salmon might be harmed, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.

The 7-4 ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the U.S. Forest Service violated federal endangered species protections by approving the mining practice along the Klamath without consulting wildlife officials.

And while the decision clearly impacts suction dredge mining along sensitive portions of the Klamath River, its shockwave may well spread much, much farther. This from the Karuk Tribe press release:

“This decision sets a major precedent across the western states,” said Roger Flynn, lead attorney representing the Tribe, and the Director and Managing Attorney of the Western Mining Action Project, a Colorado-based non-profit environmental law firm specializing in mining issues in the West. “The government and miners had argued that the archaic 1872 Mining Law, which is still on the books today, overrides environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act. The Court flatly rejected that untenable position.” said Flynn.

CalTrout’s Comments On DFG’s Proposed Suction Dredge Mining Regulations

March 5, 2012
Mark Stopher
Environmental Program Manager
California Department of Fish and Game
601 Locust Street
Redding, CA 96001

Re: California Trout Comments on Proposed Suction Dredge Regulations

Dear Mr. Stopher:

California Trout (CalTrout) is providing comments on the Department of Fish and Game’s (Department) proposed suction dredge regulations. We appreciate the Departments recent efforts to incorporate public comments and propose improved suction dredge regulations.

We remain concerned about the impacts of suction dredging, even when new and improved regulations are adopted, on specific streams. Most notably we are concerned about the impacts of suction dredging on coho salmon streams, designated state Heritage and Wild Trout waters, and popular blue-ribbon trout fisheries.

CalTrout is encouraged by the passage of AB 120 in July 2011. This legislation suspends the issuance of permits until the Department has completed an Environmental Impact Report and adopted new regulations. AB 120 includes two other important provisions:

1) The bill requires the Director of DFG to certify that the new regulations fully mitigate identified significant environmental impacts.
2) The bill requires a fee structure that allows for suction dredge permit costs to fully cover the costs of administering the program. The checkbooks and bank accounts of this state’s hunters and anglers should not be used to underwrite a program that harms the very species we pay licenses to fish.


CalTrout members use and enjoy the rivers of California to pursue their passion of fishing for California’s diverse trout, steelhead and salmon. Angling stimulates local economies and is an important driver of local economies in many rural areas.

California Trout’s mission is to protect and restore wild trout, steelhead and salmon and their waters throughout California. California Trout is supported by approximately 7,500 members and approximately 60 affiliate organizations representing approximately another 10,000 members. California Trout is headquartered in San Francisco and operates 5 field offices throughout the state.

The current state of California’s trout, steelhead and salmon is bad and worsening. [Read more…]

Fish & Game Releases Draft of New Suction Dredge Mining Regulations

Reacting to criticism of the existing suction dredge mining regulations — which did little to protect fish populations — California Fish & Game has released its draft regulations for suction dredge mining, and public comments on the revised regulations will be accepted until March 5, 2012.

You can download a draft of the new regulations here.

A few highlights include:

  • A county-by-county listing of streams and rivers where suction dredge mining is prohibited or controlled

  • A reduction in the number of permits available for issue statewide (1500)

  • Establishment of special coldwater refugia areas on the Klamath River

  • Revisions to regs designed to eliminate impacts to fish

Currently, suction dredge mining is prohibited by AB120, which established a five-year moratorium while new regulations were developed

Public Comment

This from the Fish & Game website:

The public comment period closes at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, March 5, 2012. All comments must be postmarked or received by DFG on or before that date and time. The revised regulations, all related written comments received by DFG, including the names and addresses of commenters, and DFG’s responses to written comments, will be included in the DFG’s official public record.

Please mail or hand-deliver written comments to DFG at: Suction Dredge Program, Revisions to Proposed Amendments, Department of Fish and Game, Northern Region, 601 Locust Street, Redding, CA 96001.

Written comments may also be submitted to DFG via email at: dfgsuctiondredge@dfg.ca.gov. Please include the following in the subject line for all comments submitted via email: Comments re Revisions to Proposed Amendments.

Governor Brown Signs Suction Dredge Mining Bill (AB120)

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed Assembly Bill 120 — a huge victory for the protection of California trout, steelhead and salmon.

CalTrout members responded in large numbers to a Trout Clout alert, bombarding the Governor with emails in support of the measure.

Assembly Bill 120 provides the following:

  • Extends the current moratorium on suction dredge mining until June 30, 2016
  • Requires that new regulations fully mitigate all identified significant environmental impacts including mobilizing toxic metals like mercury, destroying cultural sites and hurting wildlife
  • Requires that permitting fees cover the program’s administrative costs
  • Requires approval by the legislature and the Governor for any changes to fee structure for the program.

Trout Clout Alert: Urge Governor Brown to Regulate Suction-Dredge Mining


We need your help to ensure Governor Brown signs AB120 into law. Here’s why:

Suction Dredge Mining Threatens California’s Streams & Rivers

Suction dredge operations use gas powered pumps to suck up water and gravel through a hose to sort out gold.

As Dr. Peter Moyle points out, suction dredge operations can harm fish, especially endangered steelhead and salmon. Impacts include disturbance of spawning gravels, directly sucking small fish and invertebrates through the pump, and resuspending mercury — trapped in the gravel from past mining operations — back into streams.

AB120 will help control these negative impacts to steelhead and salmon by requiring that Fish and Game adopt and implement regulations that mitigate all significant water quality, wildlife and cultural/historical impacts.

You can see CalTrout’s comments on the recently released Environmental Impact Report on suction dredging here.

Suction Dredge Mining Costs Taxpayers Money

It costs the state far more to administer the suction dredge mining program than permit fees bring in; AB120 requires Fish & Game to adopt a fee structure that pays for the agency’s cost of administering and enforcing mining regulations.

If AB120 is signed into law — and Fish and Game fails to meet these two requirements — the agency is prohibited from adopting regulations or issuing mining permits for five years.

Click here to tell Governor Brown to sign A.B. 120 — protecting our rivers, streams and drinking water from this destructive mining practice.

Biologist Peter Moyle Discusses Effects of Suction Dredge Mining

While the suction dredge issue in California may be moot for the next five years if the current budget deal holds, uber-biologist Peter Moyle writes about his concerns with suction dredge mining, many of which are focused on intrusions into cold-water refugia (stressing fish), and direct effects:

The effects of suction dredging on fish are well described in the peer-reviewed papers Harvey (1986) and Harvey and Lisle (1998) and in the numerous citations in the two DFG review documents (see below “Further Reading”). The effects vary according to size of stream, fish species present, season of dredging, and frequency and intensity of dredging. Direct effects include trapping invertebrates and small fish in the dredges, altering the habitat that supports fish food supply, and changing channel structure to make it less favorable for fish. In the Klamath, piles of dredge tailings in the Salmon and Scott Rivers and their tributaries create attractive spawning grounds for salmonids. But these tailings are so unstable that they are likely to scour under high flows, greatly reducing survival of the embryos placed within the gravel.

(Read Moyle’s entire article here)

CalTrout believes that the impacts of suction dredge mining will vary widely depending on the size of the river and the makeup of the fish who inhabit it, and that blanket regulations for the entire state won’t protect stressed fish populations in specific areas.

We said so when we presented our comments to Fish & Game’s proposed regulations, and we will remain vigilant on the suction dredge issue.

CalTrout Opposes SB 657 (Suction Dredge Mining Bill)

No Reason to Shortcut Current Review of Suction Dredge Mining Regulations

UPDATE: We’re hearing rumors that SB 657 is DOA. More as we know it.

California Trout is in strong opposition to California Senate Bill 657, which simply deletes existing law related to the proper regulation of suction dredge mining permits.

That’s bad idea in itself, but more importantly, SB 657 would undermine an ongoing and comprehensive environmental review of the recreational practice of suction dredge mining.

In a joint letter, CalTrout and the California Chapter of Trout Unlimited said “By deleting existing law related to the proper regulation of suction dredge mining permits, SB 657 would undermine an ongoing and comprehensive environmental review of this recreational practice. The current California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and the associated process to develop and adopt new regulations governing such mining should continue.”

Stopping those processes now would waste substantial public funds, and short-circuit a public review process in favor of… well, nothing.

The threats posed by suction dredge mining to California’s native and imperiled salmon, steelhead, and trout species are documented, numerous, and must not be underestimated. They include:

  • Disruption to spawning gravels
  • Disruption to incubating eggs
  • Increases in turbidity and unnatural sedimentation
  • Alteration of stream-bottom habitats that support important food supplies
  • Entrainment of invertebrates and small fish
  • Mobilization of toxic mercury within the water column

It is for these reasons and others that the Department of Fish and Game has been ordered to perform a comprehensive review of suction dredge mining and the regulations pertaining to permitting the activity.

Please join us in supporting this ongoing and productive environmental review process, and in opposing attempts to circumvent state efforts to protect our trout, steelhead and salmon.