State Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, has introduced a bill that would restrict suction dredge gold mining on some parts of some creeks and rivers in the state. The measure is not the all-out attack on dredging that some miners will make it out to be, nor is it a threat to streamside property owners. It is a reasonable response to a surge in suction dredging and it deserves support.
Suction dredging uses gasoline-powered motors to vacuum up gravel and silt from the beds of creeks and rivers. Gold fragments are separated from the gravel, which is then returned to the stream.
State agency officials and environmental groups say dredging harms sensitive streambeds and threatens salmon and other fish that lay eggs in the gravel. Gravel and silt increase the turbidity of the water when returned to rivers and streams, which also threatens fish.
The state of California issued a moratorium on all suction dredge mining in 2009 over just those concerns. Some miners who had been dredging in California streams moved their operations into Oregon. At the same time, the rapidly rising price of gold drew more people to try dredging.
The number of permits issued by the Department of Environmental Quality rose from 934 in 2009 to nearly 2,000 in 2012.
A permit allows suction dredging in any waterway where it is not specifically restricted. State law already prohibits suction dredging in portions of 19 rivers designated as Oregon State Scenic Waterways. Bates' bill, Senate Bill 401, would add more sections of rivers and streams to the Scenic Waterways list.
Southern Oregon is a popular place for suction dredging. DEQ figures indicate portions of the Rogue, South Umpqua, Applegate, Little Applegate and Illinois account for more than half of the primary locations in Western Oregon.
Oregon voters created the State Scenic Waterways system 1970. Today, portions of 19 rivers and Waldo Lake are on the list, representing about one-third of 1 percent of all Oregon waterways. SB 401 would add one-quarter of 1 percent. In this area, the bill would add portions of the Rogue,
Some riverside landowners have expressed concern that portions of the Scenic Waterways law might affect their rights to use their property. In fact, property owners along Scenic Waterways are allowed to make any legal change to their property. The law requires only that they do so in consultation with the state Parks and Recreation Department.
The state law is not the same as the federal Wild & Scenic Rivers designation.
SB 401 would add segments of the Rogue, South Umpqua and Illinois rivers to the Scenic Waterways list. That is a modest step to protect Oregon's most precious and vulnerable waterways, leaving plenty of places where suction dredging can still occur. SB 401 deserves support.