Friday, November 13, 2015

California and the rural way of life: Part III - Gold dredging

This is the third installment in a series of posts that focus on some of the issues that rural Californians have with their state government (see here for Part I and links for other posts on this topic, and here for Part II).  Many rural Californians feel that they are not being represented at the state level. This post will focus on the issue of California's moratorium on gold dredging.

In July of 2009, California placed a moratorium on gold dredging statewide.  Gold dredging is when a machine is used to suck up dirt and rocks from the bottom of a streambed.  The water, dirt, rocks, and gold are then sent down a sluice box to separate the gold from the rest of the material (for more info about dredging, see here).  This moratorium was to remain in place until the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly California Department of Fish and Game) complied with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act).  Dredging can only resume once an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is completed and the department adopts and implements new regulations that address the environmental impacts of gold dredging. 

The reason behind the moratorium is due to the fact that gold dredging disturbs streambeds.  This disturbance can supposedly harm fish and remobilize mercury pollution that was left over from the California gold rush of the mid 1800s (mercury was used to separate the gold from sand and gravel).  For more info about mercury in California, see article here.  According to Fisheries Biologist Peter Moyle of UC Davis, the impacts of suction dredging are not well understood.  However, Moyle states that gold dredging "represents a chronic unnatural disturbance of habitats supporting fish that are already likely to be stressed by other factors." For the entire article, see here.

Some people are drawn to gold dredging for its recreational value; others are drawn by the money they can make by selling the gold.  People are upset at the state government because of the moratorium for several reasons.  First, the moratorium could not have come at a worse time in regards to our economy.  The other reasons are due to a lack of consensus showing that the detrimental effects of gold dredging outweigh the positive effects.  

In 2008, the United States entered what is now called the Great Recession.  This economic downturn caused people to lose their jobs, their homes, and their life savings.  Many people were forced to find new and inventive ways to support their families.  Some people, including my own family, turned to gold dredging to supplement their incomes.  However, less than a year after the recession started, California thought it was a good idea to limit the earning potential of gold dredgers.  Money made from gold dredging, although not much compared with the other industries in the state, could have been used to stimulate local economies and help lessen the impact the recession had on the gold mining community.  The price of gold was hitting record highs, yet nobody could extract it in any meaningful way.  People could still pan for gold, but that technique is far less efficient at extracting gold. 

I attended a public hearing prior to the implementation of the moratorium, along with a packed house of gold dredgers and representatives from the California Department of Fish and Game.  It seemed as though every dredger in the place was upset and/or angry.  Most felt that nothing they said to the Fish and Game representatives was taken seriously.  Having been there myself, it seemed to me that the decision was already made and the "hearing" was just an attempt to placate the dredging community.  During this hearing, gold dredgers made a couple of valid arguments in opposition to the notion that dredging is harmful to the environment.  The first argument directly contradicted the theory that dredging causes the remobilization of mercury, which is then washed downstream, thus potentially harming humans.

The serious and avid dredgers were the first ones to talk about all of the mercury and lead they removed from the water.  The dredgers claimed that they had removed, in some cases, barrels of lead and mercury from their sluice boxes, and thus from the rivers.  The positive effects from the removal of these substances from the rivers could have been compared with the detrimental effects of the mercury and lead spread downstream.  However, the state decided to place a moratorium on dredging instead of allowing research to help guide their decision before implementing the ban.

Even if it were shown that dredging spreads mercury and lead downstream, natural events do the same thing.  Heavy rain and snowmelt cause rivers to swell.  The increase in the volume of water in these rivers and streams stir up sediment, remobilize mercury, lead, and gold, and can scour and dramatically change the river bottom.  However, the state didn't compare the effects of dredging against natural causes before enacting the moratorium.

California has salmon and steelhead (anadromous rainbow trout) that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Part of the reason for the moratorium was to protect these species.  Dredging can destroy redds (basically fish nests) and kill the unhatched fish.  This is a significant problem.  California, however, has a multitude of dams that restrict salmon and steelhead migration upstream to their native spawning areas.  Much of the dredging occurs in areas above the dams where these fish can no longer reach.  This, too, was not taken into consideration when the moratorium was issued.

Not only can dredging harm the anadromous species (fish that live in the ocean and reproduce in fresh water), the activity can also harm native freshwater trout species. The redds of these species can easily be destroyed by a dredge.  However, stirring up the river beds can bring insects into the water and feed the fish.  I have seen this first hand.  Trout that are normally evasive will either hang out behind the sluice box to feed upon the insects that flow out from it or will hang out right in front of you and feed on insects a few inches from your face.  Once again, this was not taken into consideration by state regulators, or if it was, it was not given much weight.

The state could have taken a more tailored approach to the problems of dredging by limiting the moratorium for dredging below the dams (where the salmon and steelhead are), limited the ban during the times of the year between when the fish spawn and when the fish hatch, limited the size of dredges allowed, or a combination of all three.

Even though the moratorium is in effect, people continue to dredge.  Dredging is usually done in remote places and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, already stretched thin, lacks the resources to enforce the moratorium.  The dredging community has also come up with inventive ways to get around the moratorium.  In addition to high banking (water is pumped from the stream into a sluice box and gravel/dirt is shoveled into the box) and electronic prospecting (metal detector is used to locate gold), they have started to use "underwater blow mining" to find gold.  Blow mining uses a stream of water to stir up the bottom or in crevices to clear material out of the way, leaving the gold behind.  For more info about different dredging/extracting techniques, see here.

Many people feel that this moratorium was due to lobbying by environmental groups with very little attention to any positive consequences of dredging (due to lack of research or understanding in the scientific community).  The gold dredging community has not taken this sitting down.  This issue is on it's way to the Appellate Court of the Third Appellate District of California.  The gold dredgers have challenged the moratorium under a federal preemption argument (see here).  If California had just considered the social effects of the moratorium before enacting a one size fits all moratorium, the people would not have had to rely on the courts to have their voices heard.

In the next post, I will discuss ways that California (and other states) can tackle the lack of rural representation in state policy decisions.  This problem can possibly be resolved in one of three ways.  One idea comes from Arizona, one from Australia, and one from the proponents of Jefferson State.

For more posts on gold and gold dredging, see here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Daniel Quinley said...

So I had no idea about the dredging moratorium or the extent of the issue within the gold mining community. I do think it strange (though not surprising) that California enacted a moratorium so quickly or broadly. It seems that whenever there is a recreational activity and a potential environmental issue, the environmental issue is given deference. What strikes me, particularly with dredging, is the ease with which the system could have dealt with the dredging issue. CDFW currently requires Streambed Alteration Permits for certain activities. While dredging is not one of them; I feel like the program could have been easily amended to do so. Like a hunting permit, CDFW could have limited the amount of dredging, and the location of dredging, through the existing program while it carried out the required studies.

Unfortunately, balance does not seem to be something in the toolbox of state agencies. Hopefully the 3rd Court of Appeals listens to sense, and doesn't require the EIR to be completed before allowing at least limited dredging.