Sci Sun: Thar’s Gold in Them Hills! And also salmon, and frogs, and birds, and….   Leave a comment

In 1848, gold was discovered in the streams of Northern California. By the next year word had gotten out and the ’49’rs’ started to arrive and search for gold in any stream they could find – the gold was just sitting there, ready to be picked up! Of course it didn’t take long for tens-of-thousands of people to rush to California and soon all the easy-to-find gold had been picked up, so the miners started digging, and cutting, and blasting holes into the rock, and changing the routes of rivers, and using high-pressure water hoses to collapse the sides of hills, and so on. Within about 20 years it became too hard and too expensive to find anything more than a few flakes of gold here-and-there, miners gave up, towns stopped growing and time moved on. In fact, more people made more money selling supplies to the gold miners, than most miners made searching for gold! But the destroyed river beds, and collapsed hills, and landscapes filled with nothing but gravel remained and even today there are areas plants won’t even grow.

Although people never completely gave up on finding gold in the California hills, today it’s usually a few individuals who are hoping new machines and mining methods will help them find their big fortune; methods like suction dredge mining which uses a boat equipped with a series of pumps and motors and pipes and tubes, something like a vacuum cleaner on steroids, to suck up everything in its path – water and gravel and sand and gold and plants and animals – then, as the muddy mix (which was until a few seconds ago a living stream or river-bottom environment) passes over a collection pan, whatever gold might be in the mix drops to the bottom as everything else gets flushed back into the water. Of course a cloudy mucky mix of rocks and sand and debris (along with potentially hazardous chemicals that are disturbed and spread into the water) is no longer a healthy living place for the aquatic and riparian species that live in the rivers and streams, but the gold-hunters aren’t there to be concerned about every little animal that lives in a creek.

But, like everything else in nature, one action that might seem small can lead to more significant results. Dangerous materials like mercury that had been safely held in the soil are now released into the water and can cause aquatic species to die and fish eggs not to hatch; wildlife can’t depend on a disturbed, muddy water-environment and so they’ll look for water elsewhere (and in the wilderness, clean sources of water aren’t easy to find); the water you and I drink could be polluted and make us sick. (“Ah-ha” you say! “I only drink bottled water! or cola or tea!”) But virtually anything you drink contains water, and even though the water has been treated, there are some chemicals and materials that can only be filtered out with expensive methods that usually aren’t used on our everyday water supplies. And remember, all the water we have is all we’ve ever had. What you’re drinking today was at one time part of a stream, or snow, or the ocean.

Today suction dredge mining is against the law in California, but there are thousands of miles of streams and rivers, only a very few rangers and officers to patrol, and everyday people are using their suction pumps and tubes and hoses to search for gold. And unless we, and everyone who’s concerned about this environment-destroying process keep alert, let officials and the government know we’re concerned, and speak up to protect the species and environments that can’t speak for themselves, the law will expire in 2016 and anyone who wants to dredge the mountain creeks and clear cool streams and and fast-flowing rivers can, anytime and anyplace they want. And we think that Sucks.

Suction Dredge mining

Muddying the Waters

 

Below the surface, there’s more to learn more about species who live in and near rivers and streams:

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/exhibits/biomes/freshwater.php

http://www.crd.bc.ca/watersheds/ecosystems/riparianzones.htm

http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/freshwater/rivers/

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