By Gregg Bafundo and Crystal Elliot
The bomb-like crater in the side of the creek was the give-away. Suction dredgers.
A bucket was overturned on a log, “No dredging this hole,” indicating the pending return of a gold miner.
Walking up Scotty Creek with Nils Cowan, a reporter looking into the world of suction dredging, we saw the change – the altering of the stream bed. The large divot left behind. The turbidity in the water below the dredge operation, particles of the streambed sucked up and then vomited out the back end of a machine loud enough to drown out the sound of the water itself.
When turbidity was measured, we found the water was more than four times as dirty below the dredge operation as it was above, increasing water temperatures, decreasing dissolved oxygen. An additional burden for fish and aquatic life trying to get by in a drought-stricken summer.
More formally, motorized recreational mineral prospecting, is the act of sucking up creek and river bottoms in search of gold. Miners then process the contents through a sluice using a gas or electric powered motor. “High-banking” is a similar activity that involved excavating streambanks with the objective of processing the fluvial deposits adjacent to the stream. Once sediment is processed, it is released back into the stream or river in a large plume.
For us, Scotty Creek illustrates the growing concern over the impacts of suction dredging Washington’s streams and rivers, a point we voiced in the recent special on PBS’s Earth Fix.
The creek is a major tributary to Peshastin Creek, which has been identified by regional fisheries experts, including the Upper Columbia Regional Technical Team, as the priority tributary in the Wenatchee River subbasin for ESA-listed steelhead trout. At the time of filming, juvenile steelhead were observed in Scotty Creek within a few hundred feet of mining operations.
However, even with hundreds of millions of dollars being spent across the state of Washington to restore fish populations in places like Scotty Creek, miners are legally allowed to suck up entire stream beds in habitat where anglers aren’t even allowed to have barbs on their hooks.
The “right to search for gold,” as miners call it is largely unregulated and unchecked. Permits are free. There is no tracking, no oversight. And there are few rules, mostly guidelines.
Unlike California, Oregon and Idaho, Washington lacks effective regulation of suction dredge mining. Oregon and California have moratoriums on suction dredging because of impacts to ESA-listed fish and Idaho has places heavy restrictions on the activity.
The regulatory system for suction dredging in Washington State is broken and we need to fix it. It makes no sense to spend millions of dollars on fish habitat restoration and tightly regulate fishing while allowing a destructive activity like suction dredge mining to happen with very little oversight. This week, as the Washington State Legislature convenes, we will continue the push for regulatory reform. As Kim McDonald, director of Fish not Gold pointed out; We’ve been asking what we can do for this state’s anadromous fish for years.
This, quite simply, is something we can do.