GUEST COLUMN: Washington State Needs More Stringent Regulations On Suction Dredge Mining To Protect Fish Habitat

By Dean Finnerty

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently released a statement essentially patting themselves on the back for maintaining the status quo in response to a growing problem on Washington’s salmon and steelhead streams.

The problem at issue is recreational mining activity in these streams, utilizing mechanical equipment (“suction dredges”) to suck large amounts of gravel from river bottoms. Other western states where suction dredge mining is popular, including Oregon and California, have adopted stringent requirements to ensure this activity is practiced in compliance with laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

But WDFW is keeping its head buried firmly in the sand with respect to this particular use of the public resource. During the recent state rulemaking on the significant impacts of suction dredge mining on fish habitat, scientists and other subject experts urged more stringent oversight of this activity in the Evergreen State. But WDFW concluded that all it needs to do is more or less what it already does: require miners to fill out a Hydraulic Permit Application (HPA).

Washington residents, and visitors, may have differing ideas of how public resources such as rivers and fisheries should be managed, but nearly everyone can agree that uses which are proven to degrade water quality, fish habitat, and cultural resource sites should be strictly controlled. Unfortunately, the state regulators who are supposed to be making sure that no one’s outdoor recreation unduly affects the interests of the rest of us are not, in this instance, stepping up.

For example, the state denied a formal petition from sportsmen’s organizations urging WDFW to update its rules for recreational, motorized stream mining to ensure practitioners of this activity meet the requirements of the ESA and Clean Water Act. Instead, after 12 months of public feedback, in which individuals, organizations, tribes and businesses  urged WDFW to adopt a few additional requirements for miners—obtain a Clean Water Act discharge permit, prohibit the activity in critical habitat areas, require miners to check whether suction dredging would have impacts on cultural resources— the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission directed WDFW staff to start the process of requiring that suction dredge miners obtain a permit, known as a Hydraulic Application Permit (HPA).

Scientific studies have documented the significant harmful effects suction dredge mining can have on sensitive species and cultural resources. Among other impacts, the activity traps and kills young fish and eggs, smothers spawning gravels, and stirs up other metals such as methyl-mercury in streams. And unlike users of small boats and watercraft, miners move their dredges throughout the state without any inspection for invasive species (unless dredges are brought in from out of state).

The State’s response? The WDFW Commission directed staff to evaluate the impacts of suction dredging on aquatic habitat—using data self-reported from miners.

The resistance of the agencies responsible for protecting Washington’s salmon and steelhead fisheries to improving their oversight of an activity proven to degrade them is baffling. In contrast, in 2017 Robert Ferguson, the Washington Attorney General, formally agreed that suction dredge mining should be banned in critical habitat and more regulated in all other state waters. And a bill that would have kept suction dredge mining out of critical habitat and required miners to obtain Clean Water Act discharge permits—exactly how Oregon regulates this use of the resource—gained traction in the state legislature and will be taken back up in the 2020 legislative session. Clearly, there is a disconnect between state lawmakers and WDFW on this issue.

In another press release issued on June 13th, WDFW announced that it will collect “information to support a stream habitat assessment that will help determine suitable areas for mineral prospecting outside the established legal window of Aug. 1-15.” An agency official clarified this meant paying for expensive drone technology to map additional places for suction dredge miners to operate. At a time when WDFW is struggling with budget issues, it makes no sense to spend precious taxpayer generated revenues on accommodating a use of the public resource that is enjoyed by a tiny fraction of the population yet causes significant degradation of vital salmon and steelhead habitat and threatens water quality for downstream Tribal and municipal use.

There is a substantial body of science, and of public sentiment, supporting more stringent regulation of suction dredge mining in Washington—as neighboring states have already done. Sportsmen, who are also consumptive users of the resource, operate under (and have strongly supported) commonsense regulations on hunting and fishing that help keep habitat and fish and wildlife populations healthy and sustainable. Suction dredge miners should be required to do the same. 

WDFW’s refusal to strengthen regulation of suction dredging is killing our iconic salmon and steelhead, one gold nugget at a time. We need WDFW to go beyond lip service and improve the way it manages suction dredge mining, so we can be confident the state’s water sources and freshwater fisheries—and the cultural heritage and fishing economy that depend on them—are adequately protected.

Dean Finnerty is NW Director of Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project & Wild Steelhead Initiative Manager. dfinnerty@tu.org

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