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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.

Geyserville Bridge 2006

[Editor’s Note: Syar Industries, Inc. is requesting a permit for continued gravel mining in the Russian River from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, June 10, at 2:30 pm. The permit was not approved by the Planning Commission in April but this action may be overturned by the Supervisors. Thanks to the Russian Riverkeeper for providing information on the background and the true impacts of gravel mining in the river.]

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 1930s


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.

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.

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 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 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.

These graphics show what has occurred in the Middle Reach of the Russian River between Healdsburg and Forestville, over 25 feet of bed level degradation has lead to a major loss of aquifer storage, it has been calculated to be over a hundred thousand acre feet of water.

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

Laural Water Table Historic River Channel

Laural Water Table Current 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. Fine sediment filled pits release fine sediment back into river when floods frequently connect Open Pits to the river called “capturing”. 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.

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 called “externalizing 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.

One thought on “The True Cost of Gravel Mining in the Russian River

  1. I just have to wonder what the environmental impacts are of getting gravel from British Colombia. Shamrock is doing that now since regulations have gotten tighter. The material is brought into the bay on cargo ships then off loaded to barges up the Petaluma River.

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