Gold or Fish Battle Brews on California Rivers
In his 49th year of life, veteran miner Jeff Kilgore feels increased kinship with the original 49ers who long ago worked the same frigid river high in the Sierra Nevada.
It’s different now. The Gold Rush is gone. Kilgore uses modern equipment — a gas-powered gold dredger — to vacuum precious flecks from the cobbled rock beneath the Yuba River. And the takings are slim.
On good days, thanks to high gold prices, Kilgore says he recovers enough gold to earn $100 selling minuscule pieces and dust to jewelry makers and tourist shops along historic Highway 49. He used to take in barely $40 a day, working two mining claims six days a week.
Now Kilgore says he fears his modest livelihood is in danger from state legislation that seeks to restrict gold dredging in order to protect fish populations.
“They’re messing with heritage here a little bit,” Kilgore said of a species protection bill for native trout, aquatic and amphibian species moving through the Legislature. “Do people forget what put California on the map? It was the independent miners and the discovery of gold.”
Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and the California Trout environmental and sport fishing group say the state needs greater authority to ban gold seekers from using vacuum or suction dredge machines on rivers and streams where endangered fish species live.
Wolk’s bill, AB 1032, would empower the state Department of Fish and Game to close down some 1,100 “wild heritage trout streams” and ban gold dredgers if it believes there is a threat to fish.
The bill followed declarations by state Department of Fish and Game biologists and researchers that gold dredging in some Northern California rivers is damaging spawning grounds for coho salmon, green sturgeon and other fish.
Jeff Shellito, governmental affairs manager for California Trout, also claims the dredgers vacuum up treasured river gravel for steelhead and other wild trout, spread mercury left over from the Gold Rush era and chase fish “fingerlings out into the middle of the river, where the temperature is too cold” for survival.
“If those things (dredging machines) aren’t regulated properly, they definitely cause harm to fish,” Shellito said.
But Wolk’s bill, which has cleared the Assembly and is expected to be voted on in the Senate in August, has riled up gold miners and lobbyists for rural counties who feel the dredging industry is unfairly under assault.
Lighting up Internet message boards and appealing to Capitol politicians and the media, they argue that the state already restricts gold dredging during fish-spawning seasons and that users of the equipment must have permits.
They complain that the legislation could lead the Department of Fish and Game — which issues about 3,000 dredging permits a year — to abuse its authority by shutting off rivers and streams. They contend that such actions would harm tourism in Mother Lode counties and violate their rights under federal law to work gold claims.
“There’s a fear factor. We don’t know who is going to make the decision to shut down the rivers — and for what reason,” said Bill Kinzie, 55, a recreational dredger who works a mining claim on the Yuba River.
Wolk said her bill would give state Fish and Game officials the authority to ban gold dredging on about 5 percent of 20,000 California rivers and streams if the agency feels such actions are needed to protect fish. The bill would still allow miners to obtain special permits to dredge specific sites on closed river stretches.
Wolk said the legislation wouldn’t affect recreational gold panning but “would restrict motorized dredging, the major commercial type operations.”
“It’s not a family going out on the stream panning for gold. It’s a giant suction machine that simply vacuums the bottom of the stream and has a very harmful effect on fish,” she said.
But Wolk’s depictions only infuriate Dave DeCosta, a Butte County resident who works gold claims on the Yuba River and Spanish Creek in Plumas County.
“It’s a total fish story,” said DeCosta. He argues that vacuuming by gold dredgers, generally small-time operators, actually removes mercury and helps the environment by cleaning out river bottoms, redistributing gravel and creating underwater holes that are ideal for fish spawning.
“In every place I dredge, I come back later to a greater population of fish,” DeCosta said. “The tailings (from dredging) create nice, soft, even gravel beds and the fish are thriving.”
In a 2006 court declaration, Peter Moyle, a University of California, Davis, fisheries biologist, said dredging can create underwater gravel piles “that are attractive for spawning.” But he said they are also “unstable” and can damage fish embryos.
Near Camptonville, where Fiddle Creek trickles into the north fork of the Yuba River, Kinzie set up his floating gold dredger. In a wetsuit, snorkel and mask, he swam underwater using a vacuum to suck up the river gravel into a trestle sluice box.
“I like to think of myself as an environmentalist,” he said, taking a break from the body-straining labor. He told of cleaning up — in a single day — as much as 1 1/2 pounds of lead weights that fishermen left in the river, and described how he also routinely clears litter off the banks.
“This is about as picturesque and beautiful place as you’re going to find,” he said. “We are not going to disrupt it. Understand, this is our backyard.”
But Bill Carnazzo, a fishing guide in Foresthill, said gold dredgers operating on the middle and north forks of the American River negatively “change the contour of the bottom of the river,” and deposit unsightly silt and debris piles.
Wolk’s bill grew out of a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Karuk Indian tribe in far Northern California. The suit charged that gold dredgers were disrupting the Klamath, Scott and Salmon rivers — home to endangered coho salmon and other threatened fish.
In a settlement, the state agreed to close certain rivers and impose seasonal restrictions to protect native species. But after the settlement was challenged by a gold-dredging club, an Alameda Superior Court judge ordered the Department of Fish and Game to perform an environmental review. The study, estimated to cost $500,000 to $1.5 million, was never funded.
Miners charge that Wolk’s bill seeks to bypass the court’s decision before the actual effects of gold dredging on fish populations are known.
“I just wonder how the elected people are going to make a decision if they don’t even know what dredging is,” said Kilgore, who says it is environmentally safe. “The fact is my livelihood is tied to a bad bill.”