California Court threatens to reopen rivers to destructive suction dredge mining

Damaging practice would harm waterways, wildlife, cultural resources

The following press release was published by The Sierra Fund’s partners at the Center for Biological Diversity

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif.— A coalition fighting highly destructive suction dredge mining is considering further legal options after a state judge ruled that a California law banning the practice is preempted by federal law. The California Supreme Court is also considering whether to take up the legal issues surrounding the state law, designed to minimize mercury pollution and damage to wildlife, waterways and cultural resources caused by suction dredge mining.

Monday’s court ruling could end a moratorium on suction dredge mining enacted in 2009 by Gov. Schwarzenegger and affirmed in 2012 by Gov. Brown. Before rivers could be reopened to the controversial mining practice the California constitution requires a decision affirming the ruling this week from an appellate court.

“This decision has grave implications for Californians’ ability to protect our own waterways, wildlife and cultural resources from destructive mining,” said Jonathan Evans, toxics and endangered species campaign director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our citizens have the right to safeguard the health of their families and the waterways we all depend on from a clearly known harm.”

Suction dredge mining uses machines to vacuum up gravel and sand from streams and river bottoms in search of gold. California law prohibited in-stream suction dredge mining until the state developed regulations that pay for the program and protect water quality, wildlife and cultural resources. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has not completed those regulations.

“With this extraordinarily bad decision, it could be open season on California’s rivers with the mistaken idea that the state does not have the authority to prevent water pollution and the destruction of endangered fish and wildlife species,” said Steve Evans, wild rivers consultant for Friends of the River.

The harm done by suction dredging is well documented by scientists and government agencies. It harms state water supplies by suspending toxic mercury, sediment and heavy metals. The Environmental Protection Agency and State Water Resources Control Board urged a complete ban on suction dredge mining because of its significant impacts on water quality and wildlife from mercury pollution.

“Suction dredging is a continuation of the genocidal legacy of gold miners that started over 150 years ago. We will continue the fight to protect our cultural and natural resources,” said Karuk Director of Natural Resources Leaf Hillman. “In our view this issue is far from resolved.”

Suction dredge mining threatens important cultural resources and sensitive wildlife species. The California Native American Heritage Commission has condemned suction dredge mining’s impacts on priceless tribal and archeological resources. It destroys sensitive habitat for important and imperiled wildlife, including salmon and steelhead trout, California red-legged frogs and sensitive migratory songbirds.


A coalition of tribal, conservation and fisheries groups have been seeking to uphold California’s laws regulating suction dredge mining. This coalition 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.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 800,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Friends of the River protects and restores California rivers by influencing public policy and inspiring citizen action. With more than 5,000 members, Friends of the River is California’s statewide river conservation organization.

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.