SACRAMENTO – The state Senate voted 31-8 last week to approve SB 670, legislation by Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) to place a temporary ban on motorized suction dredge mining in California streams until the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) finishes its court-ordered overhaul of regulations governing this practice, which is highly destructive to spawning grounds for fish.
The Senate’s bipartisan approval of SB 670 means the bill next heads to the Assembly for consideration. SB 670 is an “urgency” measure, meaning that it would take effect immediately upon passage by both houses of the Legislature and signing by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) is the bill’s principal co-author; Assemblymembers Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) and Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) are also co-authors.
Suction dredge mining involves sucking up sediment from rivers or streams and spitting it out again. “Current California regulations permit monster-sized dredges capable of moving thousands of yards of river bottom in a summer season,” Wiggins said. “This kills fish eggs, immature eels and churns up long-buried mercury left over from the gold mining era. In short, it’s harmful to fish at a time when they need our help the most.”
The DFG has been ordered by the courts to overhaul regulations governing suction dredge mining on streams.
In 2005, the Karuk Tribe sued DFG to force the department to overhaul its suction dredging rules. Pushed by suction dredge miners, the courts ordered the department to complete a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review before it acted. That review was supposed to take 18 months and be completed by July 2008, but DFG has yet to begin.
That led the Karuk Tribe, California Trout, Friends of the North Fork and the Sierra Fund to petition DFG to, while it completes its EIR, issue emergency regulations to limit dredging on Klamath tributaries and five other streams in the Sierra.
DFG officials refused to issue regulations, arguing that they cannot do so under current law. Last year, all salmon fishing was banned along the Pacific coast of California and Oregon.
“The crisis is so dire that the ban has been placed again this year,” Wiggins said. “This is affecting the livelihoods of thousands of commercial fishermen, fish processors and charter boat operators, and eliminating hundred of thousands of dollars in economic activity.”
She noted that at a minimum, it will take DFG two more years of study before the CEQA review is completed and rules can be updated to protect fish – and two more years of status quo dredging while endangered salmon populations continue to dwindle.
“This is a classic instance why we must use the precautionary principle to guide decisions,” Wiggins said. “We must err on the side of the fish, because their survival is at stake. It simply doesn’t make sense to jeopardize an entire fishery, and to ask commercial fishermen to halt all fishing while allowing status quo for a recreational hobby.”
A temporary ban on the issuance of suction dredge mining permits will save the DFG an estimated $1.3 million in costs to administer a program that does not pay for itself, and allow it to dedicate saved funding toward paying for the EIR necessary to complete regulatory review. The ban does not extend to non-motorized recreational mining, such as panning for gold.
SB 670 is supported by the California Coastkeeper Alliance, California Tribal Business Alliance, California Trout, Clean Water Action, Friends of the River, Karuk Tribe, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Planning and Conservation League, Ramona Band of Cahuilla Indians, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Sierra Club California, Sierra Fund, Sierra Nevada Alliance, and Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.