The Destructive Practice That Washington Allows Virtually Unregulated

By Jesse Piedfort, Director Sierra Club, Washington State Chapter and Bill Arthur, Vice Chair Conservation Committee

2019 was without question a great year for the environment in the Washington State Legislature. Sierra Club was proud to work in partnerships across the state to help pass groundbreaking climate legislation, new protections for Puget Sound and orcas, and funding for an important stakeholder process that will help advance the conversation on Snake River dam removal. 

Unfortunately, the legislature left a few important jobs unfinished in 2019, including important regulations needed to protect the rivers and streams that sustain endangered salmon. 

There's no doubt Washingtonians care deeply about protecting salmon. And yet, Washington State still allows a destructive recreational gold mining practice called suction dredge mining to go virtually unregulated. 

Suction dredge mining is a form of recreational mining that uses gas-powered dredges to vacuum up rocks, gravel, and sediment from the bottom of creeks and rivers to search for gold. Scientific studies have shown this practice degrades water quality and destroys habitat for salmon and steelhead. 

This harmful activity occurs all over Washington State, including areas designed as critical habitat for endangered Chinook salmon, which are the primary food source for our endangered Southern Resident orca. Places like The Yakima Basin, Upper Columbia, Spokane River are all being damaged by suction dredge mining--so too are Puget Sound rivers like the Skykomish, Skagit, and Nooksack. It’s past time to end this destructive practice in critical habitat, we must push to regulate it throughout the state.

Washington is the only western state that still allows suction dredge mining without effective regulatory oversight. Consequently, Washington State has become a target for out-of-state miners, creating much greater pressure on our streams and a dangerous situation for our water quality and native fish.  The Department of Fish and Wildlife prohibits fishing in some critical habitat areas (which we support) and then ridiculously allows suction dredge mining to occur in these same waters. It’s clear that we need a comprehensive regulatory plan that doesn’t undermine current recovery efforts.

The 2019 legislature came close to getting this done; a bill (HB 1261/SB5322) regulating dredge mining and prohibiting it in critical habitat passed the Washington State Senate and several House committees. Unfortunately, the bill failed to advance to a vote of the full House before the session ended.

Making sure the legislature finishes the job on regulating suction dredge mining will be a top priority for Sierra Club in 2020. As Sierra Club members know, our salmon are still in grave danger. Returns are low, and we won't succeed in recovering these iconic species without protecting the habitat they rely on.

You can call the legislative hotline at 1-800-562-6000 (between 8am and 4:30pm, Monday through Friday) and leave a message for your local state representative or senator.  Ask them to cosponsor and vote to pass this critical measure that will protect critical habitat for our salmon, steelhead and benefit our orca.

To learn more about our other 2020 Legislative Priorities click here.