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Following Legislative Victory, Suction Mining Reform Proponents Focus on Strong Regulations

Today, 55 conservation, recreation and wildlife organizations, faith leaders, local businesses and other stakeholders around Washington sent a letter to members of the Commissioners of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington Department of Ecology. The letter urges both agencies to adopt strong regulations pursuant to the recently passed legislation prohibiting the practice of motorized suction dredge mining in Washington rivers and streams designated as critical habitat.

North Fork Snoqualmie

Photo courtesy of American Whitewater

Washington Wild helped coordinate a statewide and diverse coalition of more than 160 conservation, recreation, and wildlife organizations, local businesses, and electeds. Tribal nations from across Washington State, including the Quinault Indian Nation, Snoqualmie Tribe, Yakama Nation, Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, and Tulalip Tribes have also supported the reform legislation.

Proven impacts of unregulated suction dredge mining include erosion and sedimentation, mobilization of mercury and other heavy metals, increase in water temperatures, contamination, habitat destruction, as well as physical impacts to fish eggs, juvenile fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic organisms.

The reform lawn has received critical backing and support from many Native American tribes across Washington State, including the Snoqualmie Tribe, Yakama Nation, Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, and Quinault Indian Nation, to name a few. Non-profit organizations have also joined the legislators in support for the measures.

The insufficient regulations on motorized suction mining do not comply with the Clean Water Act. In 2018, Washington’s Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, weighed-in on the effects of suction dredge mining in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case, which upheld Oregon’s suction dredging regulations banning motorized mining from critical habitat. The Oregon law is similar to the new bills before the Washington legislature which is focused on protecting clean water and quality fish habitat.

Washington’s water quality and fisheries resources are critical to the state economy, amounting to $4.5 billion annually for the state of Washington. However, wild fish populations including Chinook salmon (the primary food source for our endangered southern resident killer whales) continue to decline, says the State’s recently released State of the Salmon in Watersheds report. Meanwhile, the state spends millions on recovery efforts for salmon, steelhead, and orcas.

“Leavenworth has a thriving tourist economy built on the back of our incredible landscape and natural environment in the Central Cascades,” said Jason Lundgren, Leavenworth City Council Member. “It is critical that we balance the needs of society and protection of our natural environment here in Leavenworth, or both will suffer. This is simply common-sense legislation and low-hanging fruit for protecting our ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in the Upper Columbia.”


During the 2019 state legislative session, a broad coalition of conservation, recreation and tribal groups supported legislation (HB 1261 and SB 5322) to restrict suction dredge mining in river reaches designated as critical habitat for salmon and endangered fish species and require permitting under the Clean Water Act. The bill was approved by key committees in the Senate and House but ran out of time before passing the House.

The reform legislation (ES HB 1261) passed the State Senate by a vote of 37 to 10 with bipartisan support on March 5. Prior to that it passed the State House of Representatives and all relevant committees. The legislation was signed by Governor Jay Inslee on March 18 and is due to take effect in June 2020.

Passage of this legislation is a decade old hard-fought win for salmon recovery, orcas, and clean water. Washington currently invests hundreds of millions of dollars in salmon recovery while allowing this activity to take place in critical habitat for ESA-listed salmon, including Chinook salmon which are the primary food source for our endangered Southern Resident orca whales. The legislation introduces commonsense updates that align with court-backed regulations for this activity in neighboring states (OR, CA, ID, MT).

Effective and commonsense rules limiting suction dredging in our neighboring states of Oregon, California, and Idaho have displaced miners that have now moved into Washington State, creating even greater pressure on our streams.

Impacts of suction dredging and other forms of motorized mineral prospecting include:

· Erosion and sedimentation in streams
· Mobilization of mercury and other heavy metals
· Increases in water temperatures due to elevated turbidity and loss of riparian vegetation
· Water contamination at access areas (e.g., gasoline spills)
· Physical impacts on fish eggs, juvenile fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic organisms
· Interruption of natural stream form and function (and creation of fish stranding hazards)
· Denuded riparian habitat caused by repeated equipment access and long-term encampments
· Destruction of habitat features (e.g., removal of large woody debris)