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.”