Senate committee approves Scenic Waterways bills
Thursday, April 18, 2013 - supporters issue press release:
Outdoor businesses, the commercial fishing industry, fisheries experts, and conservation organizations applaud the passage of Senate Bill 838 and SB 401 by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee last night. The legislation aims to protect water quality and salmon in Oregon’s iconic river systems from the impacts of harmful suction dredge mining.
“These bills safeguard Oregon’s famed rivers, which means more business and more people enjoying them for the long term,” says Frank Armendariz, owner of River Trail Outfitters in Eugene. “As our population grows so will demand for river access, and that underscores the critical need to protect these special rivers from harmful activity like suction dredge mining.”
Suction dredge mining in waterways involves the use of gasoline-powered vacuums, mounted on floating rafts, which suck up the riverbed in search of gold. Scientific evidence demonstrates that the practice harms the early stages of fish development, fish habitat, invertebrate and bivalve communities (fish food), and stirs up toxic mercury. There has been a spike in suction dredge mining in Oregon since California enacted a moratorium on the practice in 2009 due to its impacts on salmon. Between 2005-2012, there was a 580% increase in suction dredge mining in Oregon, going from 414 to 2,409 permits issued.
SB 838 calls for a time out in the form of a moratorium on suction dredge mining in Oregon waterways currently designated as Essential Salmon Habitat. These rivers have been recognized as being significant due to their importance in protecting and recovering salmon runs. The moratorium would be replaced in 2018 by a modernized permit system for suction dredge mining to better protect river habitat.
“Vacuuming up river bottoms in search of gold flecks is not in the interest of our clean water and wild salmon legacy,” says Josh Laughlin with Cascadia Wildlands. “We need a new permitting system that safeguards these values that make Oregon so special.”
SB 401 would require the state of Oregon to study what rivers should be added to the State Scenic Waterway system. The analysis would consider iconic rivers like the Illinois, Rogue, South Umpqua, Grande Ronde, Sandy, Molalla, and other renowned rivers across the state. State Scenic Waterways have a proven track record of balancing conservation and development. In particular, this level of protection prevents dams and suction dredge mining. Many of these waterways provide communities with clean drinking water. The state is currently 24 years over due to make recommendations to the system. SB 401 requires the state to finalize the study within two years.
"We are very worried about the drastic increase in suction dredge mining in Oregon's iconic rivers, especially rivers that serve as drinking water sources,” says Erik Fernandez of Oregon Wild. “I would certainly prefer to not have toxic mercury stirred up in my municipal watershed."
In early April, the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society sent a letter to Oregon legislators outlining the myriad impacts suction dredging has on fish. One of the letter’s recommendations was to prohibit or greatly reduce suction dredge mining in areas used for spawning by sensitive fish stocks. This followed a similar letter issued by the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society prior to the California moratorium.
“The science is very clear. When salmon lay eggs in unnatural gravel piles left by mining, the eggs are dramatically more likely to be washed away and destroyed in winter storms,” says Forrest English of Rogue Riverkeeper. “We simply don’t have the threatened salmon eggs to spare.”
Increases in suction dredging in rivers like the Rogue have led to complaints from nearby landowners of illegal trespassing and noisy engines running in the river, as well as river damage to salmon habitat.
The bills now move on to the Ways and Means Committee. At the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the bills on Monday, Governor Kitzhaber’s office expressed support for a moratorium on suction dredge mining while a new permitting system is developed. The commercial fishing industry, outdoor recreation industry and fisheries experts also testified in favor of the legislation.
McKenzie River Reflections