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The True Cost of Gravel Mining in the Russian River

How the public foots the bill, while miners truck out the profits.

(From Russian RiverKeeper.
For more info, see RussianRiverKeeper.org)

Gravel Mining competes with a healthy sustainable watershed, you can import gravel but you can’t import a healthy fishery or plentiful and clean water supplies for our future!

What are the Impacts?
In simple terms the largest impact from gravel mining is erosion. When material is removed from a river system it is replaced from increased erosion upstream and downstream. Gravel mining has lead to or increased impacts that damage public trust resources, but we pay for many of these impacts. Gravel mining has caused and continues to contribute to severe channel incision (deepening) that has eroded bridges, property, riparian habitat and led to steep to vertical banks that collapse during high flows.

Geyserville Bridge in 1932 had its support piers deeply embedded in riverbed gravel. Well before its New Years 2006 collapse, gravel mining had largely removed over 20 feet of the riverbed that used to support the bridge leading to a $25 million bill to taxpayers. Gravel mining is the major cause of induced incision of tributaries as gravel removed from the mainstem is replaced with increased erosion of tributaries causing wildlife, property and structural impacts.

Foss Creek in Healdsburg faces the double whammy of years of mining caused channel incision on Dry Creek and the River but also channelization leading to miles of steep erosive banks.

All the way up in Redwood Valley above Coyote Dam we can see that Ukiah Valley Mining has caused major incision and exposed bedrock over 40,000 years old! Gravel mining has caused braiding or splitting of the main channel despite the regulations that do not allow gravel mining to upset the rivers form.

Looking at the aerial this riffle is located on the green line across the LP bar where it crosses the river on the lower right, this was a gentle 4-8 inch drop that is now a huge 3-4 foot drop that will increase erosional pressures for years. All caused by the removal of over 15 feet of gravel from the LP bar.

Waters edge gravels on a recently mined bar show fine sediment clogging the pore spaces between the rocks, known as embeddedness it prohibits spawning. Gravel mining perpetuates a greatly degraded state of the River causing more bank erosion that is followed by bank armoring that increases channelization of the river and causes loss of riparian habitat.

Gravel mining has contributed to significant reductions in spawning habitat due to increased turbidity and ensuing embededness of gravels in fine materials that prohibits spawning in many mined sections of the River.

Gravel mining has caused a drop in Middle Reach aquifer levels roughly equivalent to the loss of 450,000 acre feet of water or six and a half times the current SCWA water usage from the river.

Gravel mining continues to threaten our naturally filtered water supplies by reducing the natural bedload transport and perpetuating a greatly incised river channel.

Another major gravel mining impact we will pay for as taxpayers is dealing with the hundreds of acres of Open Pit gravel mines that are unstable, pollutant filled holes in our future water supplies. Open Pit mines exist in the Middle Reach below Healdsburg and in the Ukiah Valley.

Open Pit mining impacts include: Increased fine sediment delivery to the river during flood events and stranding or capture of Salmon in pits. Fine sediment filled pits release fine sediment back into river when floods frequently connect Open Pits to the river. Eventual capture of the Open Pits by the river Open Pit mines are far deeper than the River and water always finds a low point as will the River some tragic day in the future. All Open Pits have no engineered levees and instead are just left over strips of unmined land…waiting to collapse, while spending millions to stabilize and armor the pits for the next few hundred years. In the 2006 New Years flood the Russian River decided to ignore the “keyway” and find it’s own way into the Basalt Pit almost breaching the entire levee.

Other damage due to gravel mining:

  • Permanent loss of prime agricultural lands
  • Permanent loss of tens of thousands of acre feet of aquifer waters
  • Causing increases of Mercury loading in local fish & bird species

How do we Pay?
Gravel mining companies pass along most of the environmental costs of gravel mining to our community that has paid and will continue to pay for decades after mining has ended. In the last 60 years we have paid for:

  • Fixing bridge foundation damage to Highway 101, Cloverdale First
  • Street, Geyserville, Westside Road
  • Paying for riparian & fishery restoration work
  • Filtration plants to filter out sediment from water supplies
  • Property loss from bank erosion and collapse
  • Erosion control and stabilization work at the $6 million dollar
  • Riverfront Park complex that was Kaiser Sand & Gravel Open Pit mines

Our children will be burdened with the future costs from past and current gravel mining in the Russian River such as:

  • Cleaning up Mercury pollution in former Open Pit mines
  • Stabilizing eroding Open Pit mines and preventing them from capturing the river
  • Future bridge replacements and retrofits
  • Restoration of the Chinook Salmon spawning grounds and other fishery restoration
  • Stabilizing eroding stream banks and preventing sediment delivery

Why hasn’t Russian River mining stopped?
All those gravel industry profits make for great political campaign donations to influence local politics. In many other areas of the state and country, if you want to mine gravel from a public resource like a river you pay the state for the privilege of taking away a public trust resource. Not so in the Russian River. Due to a misguided Supreme Court decision (Rehnquist), the Russian River is treated like private property as far as gravel extraction is concerned so miners can take gravel with no compensation to the state or community. This makes for great profits and the desire to protect these profits. Over the last four election cycles, individuals and companies linked to the gravel mining industry have poured tens of thousands of dollars into Sonoma County Board of Supervisors elections. The results are predictable such as one Supervisor saying, “We are sitting on a gold mine (of gravel) and we should use it”. Of course if this person were working for the community they would have thought – We ARE sitting on a gold mine, a sustainable water supply – and made decisions based on the best long-term use of competing resources.

Solutions:
Create a watershed management plan that creates accurate sediment budget, examines and recommends a plan to address flood capacity, bank stability and healthy riparian areas. At a minimum cease mining until accurate sediment budget is established, adequate mitigations are required for interruption of sediment supply and induced erosion, rigorous water quality studies are performed on gravel imbeddedness and permeability.

What you can do to stop this injustice?

  • Donate to Russian Riverkeeper – mark your donation “gravel”
  • Learn about the issues at one of our workshops
  • Attend a planning commission meeting or Board of Supervisors meeting and speak out against mining
  • Write letters to the editor, elected officials, and resource agencies against continued gravel mining.

Russian River Gravel Mining Background:
The Russian River has served as a source of construction aggregate or gravel for over 80 years and has contributed to structures such as the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, much of Highway 101, Santa Rosa City Hall and thousands of other projects. Since Russian River gravel was the most convenient source to the growing North Bay area it has yielded hundreds of millions of tons of gravel. In parts of the Russian River’s main stem and some key tributaries the riverbed is composed of rock up to 25,000 years old and the channel has dropped over 25 feet. This means that we have removed a quantity of gravel in 80 years that it took the river 25,000 years to create and we have open pits that could take a thousand years to re-fill – that is the definition of unsustainable resource extraction.

This gravel extraction has caused numerous severe impacts to the structure, water quality, water quantity, riparian vegetation, wildlife and wild fish of the Russian River. Due to over-extraction the river channel has deepened or incised causing banks to collapse. This has caused loss of property and loss of river access due to vertical banks. Mining has caused increases in turbidity and suspended sediment from upsetting the natural sediment budget and transport that normally keeps erosion to a minimum. The channel incision has caused a lowering of the water tables in the Middle Reach and Alexander Valley’s that equals over four times the current annual water use in Sonoma County and North Marin. With population projections expected to double by 2045, we’ll need a lot more water. The channel incision has also separated the top of bank riparian vegetation from the river vertically depriving riparian species of water and the river of shade. The reduced vigor of the riparian areas has reduced wild life diversity by not being able to support as many species. The endangered Chinook and Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout suffer several impacts from mining such as increased gravel embeddedness leading to reduced spawning success, loss of cool shaded water due to mainstem and tributary incision and increased turbidity reducing juvenile rearing success.

The ability of the river to continue to support our community with a clean plentiful water supply, aesthetic enjoyment, recreation and cultural and economic enrichment from having wild Salmon and Steelhead is at risk from continued gravel mining. This fact was widely acknowledged in the 1980’s and 1990’s as the Russian River is recognized in three graduate level geomorphology textbooks as the best example of impacts from over-extraction of river gravel.

This knowledge and awareness generated a response that forced the county to create the Aggregate Resources Management Plan (ARM Plan) that was supposed to regulate gravel extraction to sustainable levels. Since the ARM plan was certified in 1994, every single gravel extraction permit has requested and received variances from permit conditions in spite of public protests. Arm plan permit conditions meant to protect our future water supplies like the 100 acre maximum for open pit mining has given way to 130 acres reducing future water supplies. Conditions like having an independent science panel review each years mining before the next year has given way to two to three year time lags between gravel extraction and actual review and miners are allowed to move ahead without the “feedback loop” envisioned in the ARM plan. Despite earlier success, the profit minded mining industry gradually has rolled back any gains due to superior resources compared to non-profit organizations.