Suction dredging ban should pass

Wild salmon face enough challenges to their long-term survival — drought and the related warm-water parasites, poor ocean forage conditions, fishing — without adding suction dredges in their spawning grounds. A temporary moratorium on suction dredging now in effect on Western Oregon streams should be made permanent.

A bill to enact a permanent ban passed the Oregon Senate Monday.

Senate Bill 3 would ban suction dredging in wild salmon and steelhead spawning habitat in creeks and rivers identified as "essential salmon habitat." The practical effect of that language would ban dredges from the Illinois River, the Rogue River and its tributaries below Lost Creek Lake, and the Applegate River and its tributaries below Applegate Lake.

Suction dredge operators argue they have a right to vacuum up gravel from riverbeds under the federal Mining Act of 1872, extract gold and other heavy metals and discharge the silt back into the water. They frame their argument in terms of what they call the "War on the West" — restrictions on traditional resource extraction for environmental reasons.

The miners lost a court battle last year when a U.S. magistrate judge tossed out their lawsuit claiming federal law trumped state regulations. They had sought to overturn the state's five-year moratorium on dredging that took effect last January. But Magistrate Judge Mark Clark ruled that the federal Clean Water Act gave states the authority to regulate water pollution, and that the dredging moratorium was not an absolute ban because dry-land mining still can take place outside of salmon streams.

The state had good reason to limit dredging. The number of miners requesting permits to dredge in Oregon streams increased dramatically after California and Idaho restricted dredging, causing concern among Oregon water quality officials and environmental groups who feared the increased activity could harm fish.

The passage of SB 3 is a fitting legacy to the late Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, who championed restrictions on dredging and sponsored legislation to enact a permanent ban, although that effort did not succeed.

This year's bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, including freshman Sen. Alan DeBoer, who was elected to succeed Bates. The bill is headed for the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which includes Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford. Esquivel and his fellow committee members should follow the Senate's lead and send the measure to the governor.

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