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Declaring war on dredging

Within minutes of arriving at the Rogue River on Thursday, state Sen. Jason Atkinson was already drafting legislation in his head after spotting a line of suction dredge miners with out-of-state license plates scouring the bottom of the river for gold.

Atkinson, R-Central Point, is drawing up plans to ban suction dredge mining in Oregon.

"I have a history with these fellas," Atkinson said. "I've seen what they do to rivers in California and it's not going to happen in Oregon."

There has been a bump in suction dredge mining in Southern Oregon since California banned the practice a year ago.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued 1,205 dredging permits this year, a 30 percent increase from last year. Permit holders who list California as their address jumped from 51 last year to 85 this year, a 67 percent increase, The Associated Press reported.

Atkinson intends his new law to mirror the California moratorium. He also wants the DEQ to take a serious look at the environmental impact suction dredge mining has on Oregon's rivers and streams.

"I am very angry with the DEQ for giving so many permits to miners from out of this state," he said.

On Thursday afternoon, there were about a dozen dredge operations running along the river just downstream from the ruins of Gold Ray Dam.

Dredge mining involves sucking silt and rock from the river bottom into a strainer that collects gold. Mining has been increasingly popular over the past few years because the price of gold has risen steadily during the recession. Gold rose to $1,235 per ounce Thursday, a seven-week high.

Keith Lemons, who lives near the Rogue River, said a bigger group of dredge miners has descended on the river in recent weeks.

"I've spoken to people who said they've seen 30 of them out here at a time," Lemons said.

Christopher Lowrance of Arizona was among the gold-seeking hopefuls who placed a dredging machine along the river bank.

Lowrance has camped along the river for two months and said he used to reap $48 in gold per hour before the destruction of Gold Ray Dam.

"The dam going out hurt us," he said. "It makes it harder to see and increases the danger because you don't know if rocks or logs are coming down the river."

One miner was struggling in the river on Thursday after a log cruised by and snagged his boat attached to his dredger.

Lowrance said he would be in California right now if the state would reopen its river to dredge miners.

"The Klamath River is a great place to dredge," he said. "There's lots of gold down there. There's lots of gold here too, but it's harder to find."

Numerous studies have determined that suction dredging harms fish by stirring up silt on the river bottom. The dredges also can suck up fish eggs as they pass over the river bed.

Lowrance argues that suction mining can help fish by kicking up fresh food for them and digging holes in the river that they can use for spawning beds.

"We also collect all the lead weights and lead bullets we find in the water," he said. "We have found mercury in the rivers and we collect that, too."

Lowrance worked with a crew of five miners, two of whom made the trip from North Carolina in the hopes of striking gold in the Rogue River.

But if Atkinson gets his way in the Legislature in the coming session, this will be the last season Lowrance and his crew will dredge Oregon rivers.

"This will not stand," Atkinson said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail him at cconrad@mailtribune.com.

Christopher Lowrance, of Ariz., has been suction dredge mining on the Rogue River for several weeks. He believes dredging the river bottom is beneficial for the environment because it gives fish new areas to spawn and collects lead and mercury from the river. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch