Photo by Andrew Ottoson
An American Mining Rights Association-affiliated suction dredge operator pauses while clearing an obstruction from the sluice on a dredge.
As of Tuesday, May 1, 2018
In recent years, gold miners have gone to the state capitol in large numbers to demand a sweeping rollback of state and federal Clean Water Act regulations they say impinge on small scale suction dredging operations, but a subtle change in the state’s rules for this upcoming dredging season may put to the test how many miners are willing to work the South Fork Clearwater River this summer.
That’s partly because the federal regulations already allow more dredges than were actually worked in the South Fork Clearwater River the last two summers, and partly because the state agency that administers the state regs has removed a 15-dredge cap from the permit paperwork it requires miners to fill out.
While the upper limit on the number of dredges has been removed from the permit paperwork required by IDWR (the Idaho Department of Water Resources), the Forest Service’s post-season monitoring reports from the 2016 and 2017 seasons both found the overall amount of dredging that actually happened in the South Fork to be well under the cap – and found the dredges that were operated moved an amount of material well within what the longstanding federal regulations allow.
While IDWR’s permit paperwork no longer caps the number of dredges at 15, federal regulators have not relaxed rules under which fewer than 15 dredges were actually operated in the South Fork each of the last two years.
In 2016, the Forest Service’s monitoring report concluded that of nine operations that received South Fork permits that season, all but three fully complied with the federal rules. The monitoring also found the dredgers actually touched far less area than federal regulators had imagined, with the sum total of all the 2016 riverbed mining activity in the South Fork having physically reached less than 3,000 square feet of river bottom.
The post-2017 report concluded that of 11 operations that received South Fork permits that season, all but two fully complied, with about 3,300 square feet of South Fork Clearwater riverbed having been dredged. While the area dredged increased, the total area dredged amounted to only about 6 percent of the area federal agencies presently allow under the Endangered Species Act.
If the number of dredge permit applications spikes this season, the state agencies tasked with keeping rivers up to spec may have to lean on a third to provide expertise for the South Fork inspections.
“IDWR can consider more than 15 applications,” IDWR water compliance bureau chief Tim Luke told the Free Press April 23. “We are required to inspect sites with a fishery biologist which is normally a federal fishery biologist since most of the sites are on land managed or owned by the feds [Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management]. It is my understanding the feds will not approve more than 15 permits in 2018 and therefore will not likely inspect more than 15 sites. We may have to rely on IDFG [Idaho Fish and Game] fishery biologists if we need to inspect more than 15 sites, but I’m not certain IDFG has resources to conduct additional site inspections if that becomes necessary.”
In a letter to IDWR and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality asking the state agencies to take a fresh look at the dredge limit, Sen. Carl Crabtree cited the 2016 post-season report, which the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests produced based on dredge operators’ self-reported hours and work areas as well as forest staff estimates. IDWR had presented the results of that study to the Idaho Water Resource Board as a finding that the dredge miners actually moved far less sediment than would cause the regulators a real concern.
“Based on the volumes and hours reported, the average volume of material disturbed during the season was about 0.36 cubic yards per hour,” Luke wrote to the board in a November 2017 memo.
When the state agencies originally calculated how many dredges could be allowed, they had figured a suction dredge would move 2.0 cubic yards per hour, eight hours a day, all season long. According to the IDWR and Forest Service reporting, in actuality, the suction dredging in North Central Idaho on average moved less than one-fifth that much material per hour and was operated less than seven hours per day.
The Forest Service’s post-season monitoring covered not only the South Fork Clearwater River, but also the Orogrande, Lolo and Moose creek areas.
How many South Fork dredge permits the agencies will hand out this season is to be determined, and it depends on how many dredges operators seek to operate.
The 2018 South Fork Clearwater River suction dredging season packet – including instructions, application and conditions – is online at https://idwr.idaho.gov/files/forms/2018-recreational-mining-special-supplement-sf-clearwater-river.pdf.