Posts Tagged ‘SB 838’
Press Release: Bill to Protect Salmon Habitat in Oregon Passes House and Senate, Awaits Governor’s Signature
For immediate release
July 8, 2013
Forrest English, Rogue Riverkeeper, 541-261-2030
Josh Laughlin, Cascadia Wildlands, 541-844-8182
Salem, OR — Celebrated by fishermen, landowners, outdoor recreation businesses, and river advocates, Senate Bill 838 (SB 838) has just been passed by the Oregon House and Senate. SB 838 is now on the Governor’s desk awaiting only a signature to become law. The bill takes steps to protect salmon habitat throughout Oregon through reasonable reductions in levels of suction dredge gold mining.
“Salmon and clean water are some of the defining characteristics for Oregon’s streams and rivers,” said John Ward of Rogue Flyfishers. “This bill is a balanced first step to ensure their protection as most Oregonian’s desire.”
Although the original bill called for a total statewide moratorium, the final bill is a compromise with three main sections to be implemented over the next 3 years. The first part starting in 2014 will bring the maximum numbers of permits down to 850 statewide – levels not seen since 2009 – giving preference to long-time Oregon miners and making little change to current dredging regulations.
The second portion of the bill directs the Governor’s office to lead agency and public participation in proposing a new comprehensive regulatory framework for the legislature’s approval in 2015. This framework would be designed to meet reasonable protections for threatened and endangered salmon and trout, while simplifying Oregon’s currently complex permitting process for this activity.
“There will be over 2 years of public process to ensure that these new regulations are well thought out, scientifically based and effective,” said Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands. “This is a fair and balanced process that will benefit clean water and salmon into the future.”
The third and final part of the bill—a 5 year moratorium on suction dredging in salmon habitat—will go into effect only if the legislature fails to act in 2015 by adopting the Governor’s new regulations.
“Should the Governor and legislature act in a timely manner, miners will continue to be able to use this mining technique in appropriate areas away from endangered salmon without interruption,” said Forrest English of Rogue Riverkeeper. “Only as a last resort would this legislation enact a temporary moratorium in endangered salmon habitat.”
Suction dredge mining in waterways involves the use of gasoline-powered vacuums, mounted on floating rafts, which suck up the riverbed in search of gold. Scientific studies have demonstrated that the practice harms spawning habitat, invertebrate and bivalve communities that feed fish, and stirs up toxic mercury. There has been a spike in suction dredge mining in Oregon since California enacted a moratorium on the practice in 2009 due to its impacts on water quality and fish populations. Between 2005-2012, there was a 580% increase in suction dredge mining in Oregon, more than quadrupling from 414 to 2,409 permits issued. The increasing number of suction dredgers has introduced new conflicts with other river users and landowners.
Science played a major role in the construction and passage of SB 838. In California, state agencies conducted an exhaustive evaluation of the scientific literature, and concluded that the only way to prevent the negative water quality and health impacts of suction dredging is to prohibit the activity altogether. In early April, the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society sent a letter to Oregon legislators outlining the myriad impacts suction dredging has on fish. One of the letter’s recommendations was to prohibit or greatly reduce suction dredge mining in areas used for spawning by sensitive fish stocks. This followed a similar letter issued by the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society prior to the California moratorium.
“Studies have shown that suction dredging can mobilize toxic mercury, and reduce the spawning success of salmon species,” added English. “This bill ensures Oregon will better evaluate the available science and ensure that water quality and our iconic fish species are protected into the future.”
There are currently two bills in the Oregon Legislature that could protect Oregon’s rivers from suction dredging and the Lane County commission’s conservative majority recently voted not to support one of them, Senate Bill 401. The other one, SB 838, did not come up for county vote.
SB 401 started off as a bill to put a Scenic Waterway designation on more of Oregon’s rivers and tributaries. Portions of the McKenzie River are already protected as an Oregon Scenic Waterway, but SB 401 would protect the water of the lower McKenzie and its summer steelhead, endangered spring Chinook salmon, endangered bull trout, rainbow trout and cutthroat trout.
Scenic waterways protection means that the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department must be notified of activities proposed within a quarter mile of the bank, such as cutting trees, mining and constructing roads, railroads, utilities, buildings or other structures. The conservative majority of the County Commission bristled at this during their April 23 meeting. They also appeared to not be up-to-date on the current version of SB 401, which according to Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands, as it has been amended would only require the state of Oregon to review a list of 30 stretches of waterways named in the bill and make a recommendation in two years whether they should be included as scenic waterways.
Commissioner Jay Bozievich said at the meeting he thought that if the parks department “can’t seem to maintain their current parks,” citing issues with Glass Bar Island, then adding more rivers to the list would be problematic. Farr agreed, but specified he was not opposed to protecting drinking water. Commissioner Faye Stewart said he had been contacted by people up the McKenzie concerned about how the river protection might affect “what they can and cannot do on their property.” Pete Sorenson was the only commissioner to vote that the county should endorse SB 401 and look to protecting the river. “Voting against the bills means they are voting against clean water and wild salmon recovery. That is not a popular position this day and age,” Laughlin says.
Stewart also brought up a moratorium on suction dredge mining, but that moratorium is actually part of SB 838, which the county did not vote on. Laughlin says 838 would put a five-year moratorium on suction dredging in state-designated essential salmon habitat until a modernized suction dredge system was implemented.
Laughlin says not only is suction dredging bad for salmon, it can affect human health when mercury becomes converted into methyl mercury, a form that’s toxic to humans and moves easily through the food chain. He says he finds it “incredible that Oregon takes great efforts to protect and restore salmon, like shutting down the commercial fishery periodically or shooting sea lions at Bonneville Dam, but we allow gas-powered vacuums to suck up river bottoms in critical salmon streams.”