SGMF Letter: State Water Resources Control Board (February 2017)

February 24, 2017

State Water Resources Control Board
Div. of Water Quality – NPDES Unit
P.O. Box 100
Sacramento, CA 95812-0100
Via email: suctiondredgecommentletters@waterboards.ca.gov

Dear Water Board NPDES Unit:

San Gabriel Mountains Forever (SGMF) is a coalition of local, statewide, and national organizations and individuals dedicated to the protection of the San Gabriel Mountains and improving public recreation access and opportunities to the public lands in the region’s mountains, foothills, and rivers.

SGMF appreciates this opportunity to provide public scoping comments concerning the development by the Water Board of suction dredge mining regulations for rivers and streams throughout California, but particularly for those waterways that begin in and flow from the San Gabriel Mountains.

The San Gabriel Mountains and foothills have been mined since the gold was first discovered in Placerita Canyon in 1842 (preceding the more famous discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River by six years). Industrial-level gold mining in the San Gabriels began in 1854 and continued through to the turn of the century. Major gold mining areas included the East Fork San Gabriel River, Lytle Creek, San Antonio Canyon, Mt. Baldy, Big Santa Anita Canyon, Millard Canyon, Las Flores Canyon, Arroyo Seco, Big Tujunga Canyon, Mt. Gleason, Mt. Wilson, and Soledad Canyon.

Rising gold prices renewed the interest in gold mining in the last few decades, which resulted in the East Fork San Gabriel River and other area streams being subjected to extensive motorized suction dredge mining. This damaging activity has abated somewhat due to the current state moratorium, but SGMF is concerned that adoption of a statewide permit by the Water Board may renew this activity. We believe that the regulations must ensure the protection of water quality in and all the beneficial uses of the East Fork and other streams in the San Gabriel Mountains. The public lands and rivers in these mountains and foothills produce 30% of the region’s drinking water supply and represent 70% of Los Angeles County’s open space, providing recreation opportunities for more than 5 million visitors annually.

Mercury in the stream bed is a common legacy of historic gold mining. State and federal studies found that motorized suction dredge mining mobilizes mercury, dispersing it in fine particles downstream in a toxic plume that violates public health standards. Suction dredging also mobilizes polluting sediment. The adverse impact of this activity is enhanced by the fact that suction dredge mining typically occurs when flows are at seasonally-low levels that fail to dilute pollution. The fact that natural storms and flood flows also mobilize mercury and sediment should not be a factor. Suction dredge mining is a human activity for which the Water Board has full and clear authority to regulate.

Suction dredge mining also results in the chronic disturbance and degradation of fish and wildlife habitat and species that depend on the habitat. In addition, preparation and access to streamside areas required to suction dredge mine harms cultural and historic sites adjacent to streams, as well as streamside riparian habitat critical for songbirds. Suction dredge mining also creates noise that discourages or degrades other recreational activities. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) concluded that suction dredge mining causes significant and unavoidable impacts to water quality, fish and wildlife and their habitat, historical/cultural resources, and ambient noise levels.

These significant and unavoidable impacts would perhaps be tolerable if suction dredge mining was meeting a significant need for strategic minerals in the United States. But most U.S. produced gold comes from large scale commercial open pit heap leach mines. A survey of suction dredge miners by CDFW found that this activity is largely a recreational hobby in California. Water Board regulation of recreational suction dredge mining is needed to ensure the protection of water quality and beneficial uses of California’s rivers and streams.

Water Board regulations should prohibit suction dredge mining in:

  • Mercury and/or sediment impaired rivers and streams, as well as in waterways that are likely to be mercury and/or sediment impaired;
  • Rivers and streams that provide critical habitat for threatened and endangered fish and wildlife species;
  • River and stream segments with known or likely historic and/or cultural sites;
  • Where it degrades, interferes, or competes with other recreational activities, such as wading, swimming, picnicking, camping, and fishing;
  • State and federal wild and scenic rivers, state wild trout streams, and in river segments that flow in state and federally designated wilderness areas, as mining is incompatible with the purposes of these designations, and;
  • River and stream segments where other state, federal, and local agencies have explicitly forbidden mining under other rules and regulations.

The East Fork San Gabriel River is a good example as to why comprehensive and stringent Water Board regulations are needed. As previously noted, the East Fork has suffered from intensive suction dredge mining in the recent past due to the rise of gold prices. Renewal of this activity would harm many of the Board’s identified beneficial uses of the East Fork, including:

Recreation – Prior to the state moratorium, suction dredge mining had at times virtually displaced most other recreational activities on the East Fork between Cattle Canyon and San Gabriel Reservoir. The river is a popular day-use destination for residents from adjacent communities, many of whom are Latino or Asian. A return of intensive suction dredge mining would likely displace these visitors who come to wade, swim, picnic, fish, escape from the summer heat, and enjoy the river. Suction dredge mining typically leaves behind piles of cobbles and boulders, deep holes under the water, and unstable banks, creating hazardous conditions for other recreational visitors. Noise and air pollution from dredge motors, and water pollution from dredge sluices, also degrade the overall recreational experience.

Threatened and Endangered Species/Habitat – The East Fork is designated critical habitat for the threatened Santa Ana sucker and the endangered mountain yellow-tailed frog. In fact, the East Fork is considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be the best remaining habitat for the Santa Ana sucker. In addition, genetic studies have determined that the wild trout found in the East Fork are land-locked genetic southern steelhead (an endangered species in streams where it can migrate to and from the ocean). The return of suction dredge mining to the East Fork would degrade critical habitat for these protected and sensitive species and directly harm the populations that depend on the river.

Drinking Water Quality – All the water from the East Fork flows into the San Gabriel Reservoir, which is a major source of drinking water and groundwater recharge for the San Gabriel Valley. Water agencies have spent millions of dollars to remove sediment from this reservoir and other downstream impoundments. Suction dredge mining not only degrades water quality in the river, it contributes to the accumulation of reservoir sediment. As for mercury, the East Fork appears to be the one of the few rivers in California with an extensive history of gold mining that has not been designated as mercury impaired. We can find no information available to the public as to whether the East Fork and existing downstream reservoirs have been tested for mercury impairment. Given the strong correlation between historic mining and mercury impairment on other rivers in the state, we believe that this issue should be investigated by the Water Board before proposing effective regulations for the East Fork.

In addition, suction dredge mining regulations for the East Fork San Gabriel River should address these important issues:

Special Designations – The East Fork was identified by the Forest Service as a stream eligible for federal wild and scenic river protection due to its free-flowing character, high water quality, and outstandingly remarkable fish (threatened Santa Ana sucker and other native fish) and primitive recreation values. The Forest Service also zoned much of the East Fork as a Critical Biological Land Use Zone for sustaining native fish. In addition, the upper portion of the East Fork is a state-designated wild trout stream. Suction dredge mining is incompatible with the purposes of these special designations.

Mining Is Prohibited – Federal law passed by Congress in 1928 to conserve the water resources and to encourage the reforestation of the watersheds of Los Angeles County withdrew the public lands along the East Fork and other San Gabriel Mountain waterways from location and entry under the mining laws. Although it is the Forest Service’s responsibility to enforce this prohibition, Water Board regulations should affirm existing law and not permit suction dredge mining under its own regulations.

Prohibiting suction dredge mining on the East Fork and other sensitive streams in the San Gabriel Mountains is a public trust issue. The Water Board has the affirmative authority under the state constitution, the federal Clean Water Act, and state law to regulate this activity to ensure that the public trust values of our rivers and streams – including water quality, fish and wildlife, and recreational values – are protected for present and future generations. SGMF urges the Water Board to develop and adopt comprehensive and stringent regulations to protect the East Fork and other San Gabriel Mountain waterways from suction dredge mining.

Please keep us informed and on the contact list for the development and opportunity to comment on the draft regulations.

Thank you.