Battle Brewing Over Suction Mining In Washington Streams

“Gold fever is very, very real,” says small-scale miner Ron Larson in a recent news story that previews a developing battle in Washington.

In recent years, neighboring states have pinched down on suction dredging, which can affect salmon and steelhead and their habitat, but the practice is said to be increasing in the Evergreen State due to relatively lax oversight.

Once upon a time, my family not only fished the Sultan River, we prospected for gold in it.

One of my uncles would have nodded knowingly to hear Larson’s words. All of his life, Doug Kay had the fever, and my folks’ old place near the end of Trout Farm Road provided a good jumping-off point for his weekend expeditions into the canyon of the Snohomish County stream.

We hauled in pans and picked the grit out of crevices in the flood-washed rock walls in hopes of finding glints of the precious metal.

We did find a few flakes, carefully storing them in tiny glass vials.

KIRAN WALGAMOTT EYES UP COLORFUL ROCKS HE PANNED AT THE DEFUNCT BRITTANIA MINE IN BRITISH COLUMBIA IN 2015. HIS GREAT GRANDFATHER WORKED AT KENNECOTT'S BIG ALASKA MINE DURING THE DEPRESSION. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

KIRAN WALGAMOTT EYES UP A COLORFUL ROCK HE PANNED AT THE BRITTANIA MINE EXHIBITS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA IN 2015. HIS GREAT GREAT GRANDFATHER WORKED AS BLACKSMITH AT THE KENNECOTT MINE IN ALASKA, AND HIS GREAT GRANDPA EARNED MONEY FOR COLLEGE THERE AS WELL. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

At least once that Mom and I can recall, Uncle Doug brought a suction dredge. The models these days look not unlike my pontoon boat, if I were to outfit it with a 9-horse outboard and French-drain-sized pipes, and they’re far more efficient machines for sorting pay dirt from sand and gravel than swirling and swishing it around in a pan by hand.

Somewhere between our old house and the Sultan Basin is a source of gold that has intrigued miners like Uncle Doug for decades, while up in the basin — itself a ridge or two away from that fabled “broad bold ledge of gold” of the Monte Cristo mining district — is the defunct Kromona Mine.

There’s gold in them thar hills.

And there’s also fish in that there river.

I remember watching kings, coho and humpies skittering through the Sultan’s rapids, and how once one bit my old dog Blue.

I remember watching two salmon dig a redd; years later in tenth grade biology class, I used that as proof we could have logging and fish. Mr. Dahlem said my argument needed a lot more evidence than a single observation.

I remember once having a field day on “rainbows” that were probably steelhead smolts that our neighbor Tommy Thompson must have just let go from the rearing ponds he raised them in for the state. Working the hole at what is now the Sultan’s upper boat ramp I caught fish after fish on a green Rooster Tail.

Years later, prospecting for steelhead above and below the powerhouse, I came across an angler who’d just returned to his rig with a nice one.

How far upstream had he gone to catch it? Up where Uncle Doug’s gold flecks came from?

While there’s ore-bearing rock up there, I don’t think there’s a lot of spawning gravel in the canyon. But still, I’d like to explore that water someday for wild winters to catch and release.

The aforementioned suction mining news story describes a practice that might use some more oversight, though you also can’t just fire up the dredge and go in Washington.

“Current regulations stipulate that miners can only dredge outside of spawning times and only in the part of the river with the greatest flow,” reports OPB’s Nils Cowan. “They can only use hoses up to a 4-inch diameter and must stay at least 200 feet from other dredging operations. And when they’re done they must refill any holes they made, restoring the river to the state in which they found it.”

Even so, the on-the-river/in-the-process reality of that can be jarring.

In an video accompanying the story, Trout Unlimited’s Gregg Bafundo looks at a small pit miners have made in the bed of and to the side of low-running Peshastin Creek in Chelan County last summer and says, “This looks like a bomb went off.”

Because of last winter’s miserable snowpack and the likelihood that low flows were concentrating fish in small thermal refuges, in mid-August WDFW took the rare step to bar or restrict suction dredging in Peshastin and other streams —- a full month after the agency first told anglers to lay off the fish or only chase them before 2 p.m., and after the annual dredging window had actually closed on some like the lower Sultan.

Mark Johnston, a tribal fisheries biologist with the Yakama Nation, acknowledges to reporter Cowan that pits like that could create something of a thermal refuge for the fish.

But at the same time, the material that the miners are sucking into their dredge is about the size of gravel that salmon and steelhead would have laid their eggs in. And while the silt that’s stirred up might include some insect larvae or crawdads for downstream fish to eat, it also adds turbidity, which can be a problem on smaller streams.

I admit there will always be a part of me that casts a speculative eye on rock seams and gravel bars, wondering if there’s gold to be had inside.

But my question these days is, are we gonna be serious about recovering Endangered Species Act-listed fish stocks or not? As an angler, I’m seeing how we are — hatchery steelhead are no longer released in the Sultan, and salmon retention isn’t allowed there. It’s similar on many small streams.

Panning for gold seems not unlike fishing for steelhead in that they’re both enjoyable pastimes with rare payoffs and should be allowed to be continued in perpetuity where they make sense.

As for suction dredging, as has happened in California, Oregon, Idaho and BC, the debate in Washington will be for folks far more powerful than myself to settle.

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4 thoughts on “Battle Brewing Over Suction Mining In Washington Streams”

  1. I don’t gold pan or dredge but even I know that the soft gravel beds that the salmon spawn in are not the gravel beds the minors go for. It’s the hard pack that holds the gold. Plus I would also like to note that the hole that was mentioned and described as a bomb going off, was in fact filled just a few hours lated. Minors have 75 hours to fill in a hole they made. Sometimes they need to leave for a little to be able to grab more supplies before coming back and filling it in. The shovel and bucket left at the seen where signs they were planning on coming back to do so.

  2. Mr. Walgamott – Thank you for a balanced story. The “bomb went off video” was posted immediately to several miners forums in the western states, and ALL responses ran along these lines…”what were these miners thinking ? It gives us all a bad name when a couple bad apples don’t do the right thing” “A stream that small should be reclaimed immediately, as it could take a major storm event to fill in that hole naturally”. As for your last sentence “….the debate is for folks more powerful than me….”. We dregers in Ca have been holding raffles to pay attys for almost 10 years now, to battle very powerful state agencies, state lawyers, environmental groups. In court cases where truth/evidence is important, we have prevailed in most instances. In this time NOT ONE piece of evidence that shows dredgers “harming fish”. Your biology teacher, Mr. Dahlem was absolutely correct……

  3. additional note: I dredged for 10 years in Calif. During that time I killed approx. 30 nice trout. I FED the trout by stirring up food with my dredge…I killed the trout by fishing for them. We miners think the best way to help the fish is by NOT FISHING for them. Is this stupid logic on our part ?

  4. I find it funny how the groups that are against suction dredging still have no scientific proof that fish are being impacted. Fish gills are like our lungs though, run a barbless hook through them dead fish! Thanks Trout unlimited, being in your glass house throwing rocks. As for the tribes, the pictures of their trucks parked in the water over the axels so they can empty gill nets that dont discriminate between hatchery and native fish, and then dumping thousands out to rot to drive the price higher. And yes theres pics of that too. All this was provided to WA. St. Legislators when they tried to pass hb 838. But the media doesnt want to report on these issues.

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