Dredging on California rivers By Patricia Wiggins PDF Print E-mail
Sunday, 15 November 2009

The dangers of dredging on California rivers
Saturday, March 07, 2009
By Patricia Wiggins/In the Napa Valley Register
Some environmental problems are abstract, affecting places far away and species rarely seen. Others are as close as our supper plates.

The crash of salmon in California affects us all. This once-abundant fish, famed for huge king salmon in numbers so great they crowded our rivers, is now teetering at the edge of extinction.

These are not just trophy and sport fish. They form the backbone of California ecosystems, tribal cultures, local economies, a commercial fishing industry and a once-plentiful, wonderful food. Most Californians would mourn the loss of salmon, and rightly so.

This will likely be the second year in a row with no commercial or sport ocean salmon season. This is not an anomaly — it is the sad result of a long-term trend that government and the public have been unable to stop. And, as last year’s no-catch season demonstrates, a blanket ban on fishing will not, by itself, reverse that trend.

Salmon have borne the brunt of development in California. With every major dam, they lose habitat. With every ounce of polluted runoff from farm or city, they lose water quality. With every quart pumped from once free-flowing rivers, they lose water. In-stream pumps trap juveniles against screens; invasive species steal habitat and eat young fish; wildland roads dump sediment into streams; and hatchery management practices are incapable of replacing natural spawning. Add to this the natural — and human-induced — changes wrought on climate, the ocean and streambeds, and the salmon face one tough uphill swim.

One pernicious practice affecting water quality and the beds of streams is motorized in-stream gold mining. Gasoline-powered engines on suction dredges on pontoons or rafts are used by people to scoop up riverbeds in order to find grains of gold in Northern California streams. Sediment from suction-mining covers emerging salmon in stream gravel. The suction alone, in the deep, cool parts of wild streams, kills young fish.

Statewide, there are about 3,000 miners operating in places like the Klamath, Scott and Shasta watersheds who buy permits from the California Department of Fish and Game. Resident permits cost about $50. Combined with non-resident permit sales, they generate from $150,000 to $200,000 annually for a program which costs DFG more than $1.25 million each year to enforce.

In contrast, California fishermen buy 2.4 million fishing licenses each year. The sport-fishing industry supports a total of 43,000 jobs paying $1.3 billion in wages and salaries annually. Fishing equipment sales total more than $2.4 billion per year. And salmon, highly susceptible to the impacts from suction dredges, are traditionally the most important fish to Northern California commercial fishermen and native tribes.

Yet late last month, the DFG rejected a petition to restrict mining in areas most important to fish. The department director seemed more swayed by a partisan letter from the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors in support of the miners than ecological realities. In contrast to overwhelming evidence, the board stated that there is no emergency.

DFG’s action — or rather, the department’s shameful lack of action — is unconscionable. Environmental choices should be based on fact, as well as on fair evaluation of economic realities. Gold mining is a recreational activity. Many commercial fishermen, along with sellers of fishing equipment and others in a multi-million-dollar industry, deserve equal if not greater consideration. DFG has already admitted publicly that the regulatory status quo is harming fish like the coho salmon.

DFG officials have a responsibility to protect our state’s fishery resources, the livelihoods of our fishermen and women, and the supply of local seafood for our tables. And if they don’t fulfill that responsibility, the state legislature, along with other concerned individuals and organizations, must hold them accountable.

Accordingly, I have introduced legislation to ban suction-dredge mining in California. While some miners will denounce a ban as infringing upon their “freedom,” no human beings should be “free” to hasten the elimination of these magnificent fish. And millions of other Californians — including fishing families, recreational fishermen and salmon consumers — have an interest to protect, too.

We are, hopefully, at a turning point on the path of survival for California’s salmon. There is an agreement in principle to remove dams on the Klamath River. There is reconsideration of delta pumping and water management. There are broad efforts to bring back the coho, with many people gritting their teeth to cooperate with a broad range of restrictions, starting with fishermen.

It is time for miners to give up their self-interest, to give these fish a moment to recover. And it’s high time for the DFG to go from protecting miners to protecting fish — for all Californians.

(State Senator Patricia Wiggins, D–Santa Rosa, chairs the Joint Legislative Committee on Fisheries & Aquaculture. She represents California’s 2nd District, which includes Napa County.)

Wiggins article above demonstrates how utterly misinformed she actually is about the facts, and legalities involved with both salmon, and small scale suction dredge gold mining in California.

From the prospective of “legalities”, Wiggins is either ignorant of, or irrationally ignores “private property” law, and all the protections the US Constitution, California’s Constitution, and federal & state law provide for it. The vast majority of small scale suction dredge gold mining in California takes place on “mining claims”. Apparently Wiggins has no comprehension of what mining claims are, nor the “private property” rights such owners have.

Factually, valid mining claims are a form of private property, which are fully protected by the US & California Constitution, and all other law, that protects any other form of private property. Mining claim owners “own” the valuable minerals, such as gold within them. Thus, mining claim owners are entitled to extract gold, on their property, subject only to reasonable regulation. The same as any other property owner has the right to utilize his property, for his own economic benefit.

Wiggins is also ignorant of, or absurdly ignores critical facts about, salmon, and the salmon fishery in general. California law provides sports and commercial fisherman the “mere privilege” to catch & kill fish. The California Department of Fish & Game can modify, suspend, or revoke that license, for good reason, or cause at any time. As a fishing license is neither a “contract”, or “private property” right of any sort. Conversely, a valid mining claim is private property, and the proprietor owns the valuable mineral in it, as well as the right to extract it.

Wiggins contends “…California fishermen buy 2.4 million fishing licenses each year. The sport-fishing industry supports a total of 43,000 jobs paying $1.3 billion in wages and salaries annually. Fishing equipment sales total more than $2.4 billion per year…”

That rational is absurd, in-so-far as she ignores, those 2.4 million fishing licenses, 43,000 jobs, and $1.3 billion in annual fishing equipment sales all exist for the sole purpose of killing fish, not protecting them.

Apparently, Wiggins believes that because more people are involved, and more money is spent annually in California to kill fish. That those same fish should be protected from far fewer people who don’t spend as much money, and never intentionally harm, or kill fish. That reasoning is plainly illogical.

What has happened here, is Wiggins was foolishly hood-winked into believing all the distorted, biased, misinformation that the anti-suction dredge lobby flooded both California, and her with. Wiggins in utter contravention of her duty, as a legislator, failed to ascertain the true facts of the matter, and thoughtlessly threw her support behind them.

Then, Wiggins without full knowledge of the facts, or even comprehension of governing law, or the Constitutionally protected private property rights involved, threw togather badly written legislation creating SB 670. With Wiggins espousing the need for, and the good it would do, she convinced a majority of her fellow legislators, and the governor to pass SB 670, as law.

Which immediately implemented a statewide ban on all suction dredge gold mining, as an “urgency” measure, when no urgency, or emergency existed to support doing so. Within days of passage (August 6th, 2009), SB 670 was profoundly challenged in a federal court action, by Public Lands for People, suction dredge manufactures, and affected private citizens. Even to a laymen, SB 670 is obviously in direct contravention of various United States, and California Constitutional provisions protecting private property, as well as a long list of other associated laws.

I certainly applaud, and support good faith legitimate efforts to protect the environment, and fisheries in California. However, SB 670 is so illegitimate, erroneous, arbitrary, without basis in fact, or law. There is no doubt it will be soundly overturned in federal court, the sooner, the better.

Once that occurs, I would hope Wiggins, all legislators who voted for SB 670, and the Governor, who signed it into law, take full responsibility for all the damage, loss, cost, waste, hardship and harm SB 670 caused to all those it so unfairly, unlawfully, and badly damaged. In her article, Wiggins used the words “shameful” - “unconscionable“ - "pernicious". Once SB 670 is overturned, I would hope Wiggins fully realizes those words apply to her.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 15 November 2009 )
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