Perry Allen emerges from the Rogue River and pulls off his goggles and breathing apparatus to see what 15 minutes of sucking rocks and sand from the riverbed has earned him.
He turns his suction dredge motor off and pulls back the dredge's sluice box cover to reveal a sludge of dark sand and rocks filtered to the bottom. He tosses a fistful of the muck into a large green pan.
Suction dredgers have begun the first of two seasons of operation under new temporary restrictions while a state working group hammers out long-term rules for this form of mining in Oregon.
Adopted last year by the Oregon Legislature, the rules roll back the number of dredging permits to 850 — the same number issued in 2009, before moratoriums on dredging in California and other states and a spike in gold prices led to a rush of miners to Oregon rivers such as the Rogue.
Dredgers must now stay 500 feet away from each other, can operate only between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and must remove their dredges from the water when not attended.
The dredging season differs on various rivers and follows the legal in-water work period to protect wild salmon eggs and young fry in the gravels.
On the Rogue River, the season runs June 15 through Aug. 31, while the Illinois River season is June 15 to Sept. 15. On the Applegate River, the season runs July 1 through Sept. 1.
Dredge permits jumped to about 2,400 in Oregon last year, triggering complaints from riverside residents and river users about noise and congestion. So far, about 500 permits have been issued through the state Department of State Lands, though more are pending, according to the agency.
"You know the expression 'It didn't pan out?' " Allen says. "The expression came from mining. Now we'll see if that work panned out."
Allen swishes water in the pan until the lighter sand and rocks dribble back into the river, leaving three bright specks attached to the pan — the stuff that's tantalized Southern Oregon miners for 163 years.
"There's plenty of gold in the Rogue River, you just have to go after it," Allen says. "I'm getting excited now. It's my first time back in the river."
Come the end of August, it likely will be his last.
Dredgers such as Allen are at the beginning of what they expect to be the end of suction dredging on the Rogue, and not because they've lost their long-standing clash with fish conservationists who believe suction mining damages young wild salmon and their habitat.
Their apparent downfall comes from the recent discovery of elevated levels of mercury in the Rogue's pikeminnow and a new reluctance among state water-quality managers to allow general dredging in salmon habitat where levels of toxins such as mercury eclipse federal Clean Water Act standards.
The state Department of Environmental Quality is rewriting a five-year, general water-quality permit needed by Allen and other dredgers beginning in 2015 and its current draft would not cover the Rogue.
No water-quality permit, no Rogue dredgers in 2015.
Miners say they're being penalized on a technicality, another blow from an environmental movement that simply wants dredgers to disappear from Oregon.
"It's an end-run around our granted rights as miners," says Rick Barclay, chairman of the Galice Mining District along the Rogue.
"They don't give a snort about the mercury," Barclay says. "There's been mercury there since God was in diapers. They just want to get rid of miners. It's a continuation of the war on the West, just a different chapter."
Karen Tarnow, a DEQ senior policy analyst, says water quality officials believe past iterations of the general water-quality permit for suction mining in salmon habitat were "vulnerable" to legal challenges because they applied to streams known to violate clean-water standards for things like excessive sediment and toxins.
In the past, the Rogue was not on that laundry list of so-called "water quality limited" streams. But the recent discovery of mercury in resident pikeminnow — considered the indicator species for this neurotoxin's presence here — now puts it on the list that awaits final Environmental Protection Agency approval later this summer.
"We're not doing this out of spite," Tarnow says. "We're proposing what we believe is necessary to issue a legal and defensible permit."
Allen doesn't see the connection.
The 69-year-old former Rogue fishing guide got bit by the dredging bug in the late '70s and now uses it to supplement his retirement.
He'll spend a few hours each weekday plying the Rogue bed upstream of the city of Rogue River, intentionally avoiding the weekend rafting and fishing crowds, to collect enough gold flecks to match half a penny's worth of weight.
Last year he collected enough to pay his expenses, he says.
"You spend all of your time and money to make it work and they put in a new regulation that puts you out of business," Allen says.
Forrest English, of the Ashland-based group Rogue Riverkeeper, says it's prudent that DEQ take into account the elevated mercury levels when issuing its general permit to dredgers because of how they disturb the river bottom during their season, which began June 15 and runs through August.
When dredgers suck the bottom for gold, they can dislodge mercury that could further add to the mercury problem, English says.
"Whether it's triggered because of a specific push or not, either way we'll be protecting water quality and fish habitat in the Rogue," English says.
While the entire 216 miles of the Rogue from the ocean to its highest source within Crater Lake National Park would be off-limits to dredgers under the current proposed draft permit, Barclay says it really would only affect waters from Gold Hill on down because that's where the gold is.
Lost Creek dam's placement has curtailed gravel recruitment in the upper Rogue.
"That's why you don't see a dredge at Dodge Bridge, because it's barren," Barclay says of the Highway 234 span over the Rogue in Sams Valley.
English and others believe the final permit should include the Rogue tributaries because they are the source of the Rogue's flow.
"Obviously, if there's mercury in the entire main-stem of the Rogue, it has to come from somewhere," English says.
Tarnow says DEQ officials have received comments seeking the addition of Rogue tributaries to the banned area, but no decision has been made whether to add them.
Mercury hasn't been tested in those tributaries, and it exists in the Rogue in such low concentrations that it's nearly impossible to detect it in the water, says Bill Meyers, the DEQ's Rogue Basin coordinator.
Municipal water-treatment systems on the Rogue have never detected unsafe levels of mercury in the water they pull from the river, Meyers says. However, tests on pikeminnow collected from the Rogue in 2010 near what used to be Gold Ray Dam and at Robertson Bridge in Josephine County showed levels more than 10 times above the state's water-quality standards for toxic pollutants.
As residents, pikeminnow collect it over time in their tissues as the toxin moves up the food chain, thus indicative of what larger predators such as eagles and other raptors would ingest when feeding on pikeminnow, Meyers says.
The mercury likely is a mix of natural elements found in the region's rock formations as well as "legacy mercury" remnants from past mining operations, Meyers says.
Future dredgers could work the Rogue even if the current draft permit gets adopted under two possibilities.
One is if the DEQ determined what levels of mercury in the Rogue are safe and developed a plan to get them there that included adding the impacts from dredging.
Tarnow says no such plan is scheduled to be done.
Another is if a dredger such as Allen applied for an individual permit that accounted for a specific operation in a specific location.
Tarnow says it is "conceivable" that such a permit could be written, but "we wouldn't know if we could or what that would look like until we look at the individual operation."
"It certainly is a brain-twister," Tarnow says.
Barclay calls the DEQ document an "arbitrary permit," and he believes some federal case law supports miners in this area.
"There is some court challenges if people want to put up the money," Barclay says. "But it takes money and they know we don't have unlimited expenses. They know we're independent and not very well organized."
Allen says he considers himself a conservationist.
"I want to see fish," he says. "I want to see eagles and I want to see clean water."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: A typographical error in this story's headline has been corrected.