Salmon River Suction Dredging

Salmon River Suction Dredging

Current Status:

Date Filed:
May 8, 2017

Case Title:
Notice of Intent to Sue for Clean Water Act Violations

Staff attorney(s):
Bryan Hurlbutt


Idaho Conservation League


Case Information:

Launching Case to Protect the Salmon River from Suction Dredging


On May 8, 2017, Advocates for the West sent a notice of intent to sue to a suction dredge miner for discharging sediment and other pollutants in Idaho’s Salmon River without a Clean Water Act permit.


What Is Suction Dredging?
A suction dredge uses a high pressure, gasoline powered water pump to suck up riverbed material and water.  The riverbed material and water are pumped to a floating raft and then run through a sluice box to separate out any gold.  The riverbed material and water are then discharged back to the river, creating a plume of turbid wastewater that can stretch far downstream.


Why Are We Concerned?
A famous whitewater rafting and fishing destination, the Salmon River is one of the longest undamned rivers in the United States and passes through one the deepest canyons in North America.  The Salmon River and its tributaries provide much of the best remaining habitat for threatened and endangered Columbia River Chinook salmon and steelhead–fish that are born in Idaho, migrate down the Salmon River to the ocean, and return as adults to lay eggs.


Much of the Salmon River originates in a series of connected wilderness areas that protect the mountains of central Idaho, and many segments of the River and its tributaries are recognized under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  But the Salmon River and its prized fish remain at risk, due to climate, irrigation diversions, mining, and other activities that reduce river flows, alter the course of streams and floodplains, elevate water temperatures, and add pollution.


Suction dredges discharge sediment and pollutants that are harmful to fish.  Dredgers also move boulders and suck up riverbed material, altering natural fish habitat.  As other states have strictly limited and even banned suction dredge mining to protect fish and other aquatic resources, more suction dredge miners of have shown up on the Salmon River and across in Idaho where dredging is less restricted.


What Is This Case About?
Suction dredge miner Donald Smith has applied for a riverbed mineral lease from the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL).  If granted, Mr. Smith would receive the exclusive right to suction dredge a 1-mile stretch of the Salmon River over the next 5 years.  In previous years, Mr. Smith has dredged at this same site, which is approximately 1 mile downstream (north) of Riggins, Idaho, based on approvals from the IDL and Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR).


While IDL and IDWR are in charge of mineral leasing and stream channel alterations to the bed of the Salmon River, these state agencies do not regulate pollution discharges.  To discharge sediment and other pollutants from a suction dredge, a dredge miner must apply for, receive, and comply with the terms of a federal Clean Water Act permit.  A Clean Water Act permit will include best management practices, reporting requirements, and other terms and conditions that will protect against the adverse impacts of dredge pollution.


Mr. Smith, however, has not applied for a Clean Water Act permit.  This notice of intent to sue informs Mr. Smith that we intend to file a federal court lawsuit against him for his past, ongoing, and future violations of the Clean Water Act if he continues dredging without obtaining and complying with a pollution discharge permit.
We hope this case sends a strong message to Mr. Smith and other suction dredge miners that they need to follow the law and minimize impacts to Idaho’s fish and rivers, especially on the Salmon River.
Case Filings